The proposition that nerd culture isn't mainstream, that nerds don't have enough turf already (I'm looking at you, the entire internet, even the dark parts I cannot see)—makes me groan. The most popular form of entertainment today is watching other people play video games. Comic-cons are line-around-the-block consumerist parades. Superhero movies dominate the marketplace. Nerd culture has its own money now. They got their revenge. Pretending like nerds are still the bullied kid of popular culture will no longer fly.
Puny Humans, written by Bret Fetzer and Keiko Green, directed by Gavin Reub, and now running at Annex Theatre through May 14 delightfully addresses a lot of those curmudgeonly concerns in the first few moments of the play. The critique comes from the perspective of a comic book vendor attending the fictional Queen City Comic-con: "Products, products, products!" he shouts in amazement, after recalling the underground days in San Diego, where Ray Bradbury was considered a hero.
From there, one of approximately eight intersecting narratives involving 13 characters unfolds. They're all pretty compelling. It's sort of like a stage version of Robert Altman's Nashville but for nerds and not as weird.
The narratives involve a range of issues, revealing the human drama humming beneath the alien sheen of commercial comic-cons: a young woman considers abortion, a mother struggles with caring for her on-the-spectrum child, a romance blooms between a guy who dresses like Darth Vader and a woman who dresses like Sailor Moon, an up-and-coming reviewer advocating for gender equity in the gaming world deals with Twitter trolls for the first time, a young sci-fi actor tries to use his newfound power to get laid while an aging actor tries to come to terms with the end of her career, two nerd friends grow apart—and probably a couple more I forgot to write down.
The performances were serviceable and showcased a rainbow of geekdome. Te Yelland was a stand-out. She plays an often quiet, contemplative aspiring writer named Hazel, who's not into all the hubbub of the comic-con. She's the one deciding whether or not she wants to have a baby. It's challenging to play a captivating introverted character—the impulse to over-brood often wins out— but Yelland's subtle gestures and easy humor drew me in.
David Rollison's portrayal of Gus was notable, despite the fact that his performance was essentially a long-form, high-pitched Paul Giamatti impression. Gus is an insufferable and finger-wagging nerd's nerd who dresses up as the Joker. In an argument with Sam (the up-and-coming game reviewer played by Zenaida Smith) he articulates the frustration of the Gamergate faction (though he hasn't participated in any trolling) from a believable place of passion and pain. You can almost see the vulnerability coursing through his tirade as he worries that feminists are bullying him out of his own fortress of solitude.
While the performances were good—I would not at all be surprised to bump into any of these people at The Raygun Lounge—the play felt really loooooooooong in the second act. Including a brief intermission, the play started at 7:45 pm and ended at 10:10 pm. For a self-involved comedy about a sub-culture that's not really a sub-culture, two hours and some change is a bit of an ask, but the reason for this feeling of longness didn't have to do with the play's runtime. It was, like all problems, structural: Watching several narratives snap shut one by one by one by one over the course of an entire second act got tiresome. It was like the end of the last Lord of the Rings movie, where it was like come on—can't everybody just get in those boats and skedaddle to Valinor? I gotta pee! Damn.
The bar at Annex did feature sweet NES games that you could play during intermission/before the show. Duck Hunt was loaded up when I walked in, but there was also Ninja, The Legend of Zelda, TMNT, Skate or Die, Top Gun, and a few others—all classics. Nobody was even playing them! If you really want to make an evening of it, get there early and drop into 8-bit nostalgia bliss.