Making its Orlando debut on the cusp of '90s nostalgia, writer/director David Lee's Cobain-exhuming musical Nirvanov is like grunge itself: morose, pedantic, inward-looking and enlivened by moments of exquisite, heartbreaking beauty.
The show, which has been performed elsewhere a handful of times between 1994 and 1999, already feels like a Gen-X time capsule or a Kaufman-esque adaptation exercise whose area of inquiry is fast receding into the cultural rearview mirror. The template is Chekhov's Ivanov but the touchstone is Seattle Smack City as pop star Nikolai Alekseyevich Nirvanov (musician J-Sun) mopes about his mansion, struggling with the pressures of fame and a perpetually upset stomach while fielding the desperate attentions of his shrill wife (Sarah Mathews). At the end of the missus' arm, we find Frances Bean, a baby doll meant to represent their unlucky offspring. But there's another Frances living closer to Nirvanov's heart. As an imaginary friend, he's selected the ghost of Frances Farmer (Becky Fisher), who offers him words of brittle wisdom returned from the snake pit of misunderstood celebrity. (You know you're depressed when even your self-created acquaintances are acerbic harbingers of doom.)
When she's not challenging Nirvanov with salvos of sarcasm, Farmer is lobbing them at us in defiant soliloquies that are typical of the play's often hectoring script. The closest thing to action occurs when Nirvanov decides to gasp! go out for a change, to a party at the home of his manager (Tim DeBaun) and his wife (Beth Marshall). But the gathering merely affords more opportunity for absurdist verbal flaying as we wait for our star to go out with a proverbial bang. A Russian-roulette joke would really seal the adaptation, but at no time does Lee's script sink so low.
Forbidden from using Cobain's music, lyricist Lee and composer Nandi Johannes have supplied a Nirvana-esque original score full of plaintive, haunting melodies. The show works best when it's most like a concert, trotting out a supporting band of dandyish "vampyres" to accompany the leads with gorgeous vocal harmonies. In their duets, J-Sun and Fisher demonstrate that their individual voices each of which has attracted a fervent following mesh beautifully.
J-Sun's singing style, however, is smoother than Cobain's, and the difference carries over into the nonmusical aspects of his performance. While a serviceable actor, he's too affable to convey the quality that made Cobain irresistible to so many: the studied introversion that is a manipulation all its own. To denote Nirvanov's essential magnetism, the show relies on Heather Leonardi's excellent work as a worshipful fan named Sasha, whose devotion to him carries a yearning humanity that cuts through the surrounding nihilism like a flashlight.
Yet her presence is not enough to quell the suspicion that Nirvanov is already out of its time. The world has changed a lot since 1994, in ways that have made celebrity misery a hard sell. Watching the show, I kept wishing that Lee would pen an adaptation of An Enemy of the People with the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines as its heroine. In desperate times, the real culture heroes are those who have the balls to stand for something beyond their own suffering. Anything else is so five suicides ago.