A Wrestler Comes Out

BY ADAM SANDEL Special to The Examiner

Jim Provenzano's play "PINS," based on his novel, is a coming of age and coming out story set amid the world of high school wrestling. It gets a strong, well-staged world premiere production at The New Conservatory Theatre Center.

The story follows 15-year-old Joey Nicci, a working class Catholic kid from New Jersey. Through his experiences on the varsity wrestling team, he learns about competition, friendship, violence, cruelty, and his own burgeoning homosexuality.

Provenzano throws a lot of big issues into the mix, including coming out, homophobia, gay bashing, martyrdom, and how sports violence can easily turn real.

In condensing his novel for the stage, the playwright gives some of these issues less attention than they deserve.

By focusing on the daily life of his endearing young hero, Provenzano shows great skill with naturalistic dialogue and a healthy dose of wry humor, even if the play's bigger statements don't quite find their proper voice.

Act 1 builds to a strong climax as the hero finds himself involved in an act of homophobic violence, but Act 2 loses focus and flounders. Scenes that could have dramatic impact (such as a media-hyped trial and Joey's coming out to the wrestling world) are merely referred to as opposed to being dramatized on stage.

The production's greatest asset is Nick Tagas as Joey.

This young actor (who was hilarious as Juliet's nurse in NCTC's "R&J") inhabits the demanding role with total conviction, great physicality and a puckish charm that draws us immediately into his world.

As Dink, Joey's fellow teammate and the object of his affection, Brett A. Holland is strong and sympathetic, even if he pushes the Noo Joisey accent a bit too hard. Michael Anthony Carlisi is excellent in multiple roles including Joey's slow-witted kid brother.

Megan Towle does a fine job delineating her three roles of Joey's working-class mom, Dink's yuppie mom and a prim social worker. Mitchell Lee Marks is less effective as both dads and the school wrestling coach, playing each character as identical and bland.

John Dravinski, Eric Herzog and Matthew Vierling fill out the ensemble as wrestlers and various other characters. Nate Levine is effective in the (somewhat stereotyped) role of the picked-on gay kid Anthony as well as his older brother.

Stephen Rupsch directs the production with great vigor and theatricality. He stages the scenes of wrestling, violence and sexuality with equal care. The play's many scenes flow gracefully from one setting to another with the aid of Rob Vogt's minimalist set and Jon Retsky's highly evocative lighting.

PINS continues at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $18-$38. Visit www.nctcsf.org or call (415) 861-8972.

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