PINS makes the stage an arena

by Richard Dodds
Bay Area Reporter

There are a number of good reasons to see PINS, Jim Provenzano's crafty adaptation of his novel about a gay high school wrestler, and one of them is the young actor who plays that wrestler. His name is Nick Tagas, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find his name attached to increasingly prestigious projects, if an acting career is what he's after. Based on his work as Joey Nicci, the sexually and socially conflicted hero of PINS, it's a path he should well consider.

Tagas' skillful and empathetic portrayal provides a needed grounding in the swirl of scenes that Provenzano (author of the B.A.R.'s Sports Complex column) has created from his novel. Smartly, Provenzano has rethought his prose work in a highly theatrical fashion, rather than as a wordy literal adaptation, and director Stephen Rupsch has contributed to this successful stage translation with his fast-paced and imaginative production at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

Set in a New Jersey suburb in 1993, the story follows 15-year-old Joey as his interest in wrestling becomes a passion with both sweet and tragic consequences. The wrestling mat also provides an arena in which Joey can grapple with his growing certainly that he is gay, and to find a socially acceptable way to touch a fellow high-school wrestler with whom he is smitten.

But because wrestling involves just such physical contact, and its participants wear revealing singlets, it has a reputation as a "fag" sport that certain members of Joey's squad go to dangerous lengths to prove false. Rather than confront his teammates over their homophobia, he joins them on a fateful night that changes all of their lives.

NCTC has converted its Walker Theatre into something of an intimate wrestling ring, with mats covering the stage area, which is surrounded by seating on three sides. Several matches are represented, and while choreographed by Provenzano, they still create a visceral competitive tension.

The best scenes, though, are those that explore the budding attraction between Joey and his best friend Dink (an engaging Brett Holland) as their tentative flirtations move toward consummation. These moments ring with adolescent authenticity that is both warm and safely erotic.

Where the play is least compelling is in the scenes with Joey's parents, who remain ambiguous figures. Their discovery that their son is gay is practically a nonchalant event that lessens the dramatic tensions that have been building. While Megan Towle, as Joey's mother, works effectively with the material at hand, Mitchell Lee Marks can't find a credible groove as Joey's father. With the exception of Tagas as Joey and Holland as Dink, the rest of the cast play multiple roles and mostly serve the piece effectively.

PINS is a play with a promising future. But even in this, its first production, this unusual play is in remarkably good shape. See it now, and you someday may be able to say you saw it first.

PINS will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Oct. 13. Tickets are $18-$28. Call (415) 861-8972.

Short yet insightful review in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

One of the more insidious things about homophobia is that it's not always obvious who the homophobe is. Sometimes it's a gay kid whose internalized self-hatred makes him lash out at other queers.

Without perpetuating the stereotype that gay-bashers are usually gay bashers (because if it's believed that only queers attack other queers - and this is certainly not the case - it's much too easy to dismiss it as a "gay problem"), Jim Provenzano (who writes the Sports Complex column in the Bay Area Reporter) explores the nuances of this phenomenon in his sensitive work on the unlikely topic of high school wrestling.

Joey Nicci (Nick Tagas) is in love with a fellow wrestler but still participates in the ostracizing of an openly gay teammate, with tragic results. The treatment of adolescent sexuality and the pressures and pleasures of team sports is perceptive and honest, and offers a unique view of growing up gay. (Lara Shalson, Sept 11, 2002)

PINS Scores Big

by Gene Price
San Francisco Bay Times
Sept 5, 2002

Sportswriter Jim Provenzano's adaptation of his novel, commissioned by the New Conservatory Theatre to celebrate Gay Games 2002, is a fine example of the virtues of compelling drama: spare, incisive writing, clever, sensitive direction (Stephen Rupsch), and some fine ensemble acting.

PINS is a term applied when a wrestler pins the shoulders of his opponent to the mat. It is also an acronym for a social welfare term for a juvenile in need of supervision. PINS is the story of Catholic and gay high school wrestler Joey Nicci (Nick Tagas), who falls in love with teammate Dink (Brett Holland) and survives the slings and arrows of homophobic peer pressure in 1993 Little Falls, New Jersey.

The action is confined to designer Rob Vogt's bare arena of blue wrestling mats framed by a bench and a couple of red lockers. With remarkably fluid segues, a montage of brief scenes shifts from surprisingly realistic practice bouts with team wrestlers, Joey, Dink, Bennie (Eric Herzog) and Hunter (Matthew Vierling), to Joey's confrontations with obviously gay team wrestler Anthony (Nate Levine), to his parents, a brusque but protective mother (the excellent Megan Towle who also plays Dink's mother and a counselor) and his father (Mitchell Lee Marks), to a tastefully erotic, under-the-sheets sexual consummation. The climax of the first act is a dramatic New Year's Eve joy-riding scene in which Joey and Dink are helpless witnesses to an off-stage gay bashing by Bennie and Hunter.

The less dramatically intense second act follows Joey's handling of his homosexual outing with his coach, parents, younger brother and his peers for his role as the gay bashing informer. Separated from Dink, who has been sentenced by the court for his observer role in the bashing, Joey's letter to his lover is a poignantly adolescent memorial to their brief affair.

A monologue attempting a relevant literary comparison to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian (the beautiful Roman archer who rejected the advances of Emperor Diocletian and was subsequently used for target practice) seemed intrusive.

Beautifully acted by young Tagas (a standout in last season's Shakespeare's R & J) and a cast of eight, several of whom play multiple roles, the play features imaginative wrestling choreography by the playwright, a 1998 Gay Games bronze medalist in freestyle wrestling.

Impressively written, this almost minimalist drama skillfully builds an empathic tension.

New Conservatory Theatre Center

PINS the play

PINS the book

Sports Complex