Review: 'Crude' at Ars Nova

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

As the audience enters they see the most boring set ever: a living room with a couch square in the middle, and half empty plates and wineglasses on the table in front of it. But don’t let it trick you as Crude is unlike any other living room drama we’ve seen in a long time. It inherited recurring genre attributes like a stale interior design with the necessary whiskey in a carafe for actors to occupy themselves on stage during long dialogues. But wait for it…

As Jaime (Nico Tortorella) and Brittany (Eliza Huberth), a young married couple, were going through their first scene I didn’t quite know what to make of it. They are watching a commercial created by Jaimie for Kurtz Petroleum, a company owned by Jaimie’s father. The young corporate wolf is overly excited and proud. He demands the reaction from his wife who, as will be established shortly, is an environmental activist. There also will be an old sick dog, which is like a child to them.  

As the scene moves on, the invisible TV still runs and distracts the characters. When Brittany talks to Jaimie she glances at the direction of the audience from time to time, which looks like a really bad theater but is in fact a genius idea. This shows a separation between the couple with their different views on the relationship, family, money and environment, which will become the core of the drama. Despite their seemingly normal and balanced dialogue, despite them kissing passionately, the crack is already there and the approaching environmental catastrophe will put them at risk of falling apart. 

I just love the small details in this play so cleverly written by Jordan Jaffe. When the old dog pooped, interrupting a love scene, and Jaime went to clean it up, Brittany saw the news about even bigger shit coming their way; namely a huge oil-spill near the coast. Both of them rush to the door to clean up on their end. But with the seemingly single goal, to contribute in cleaning the ocean, they have different priorities. Jaime is tied with his father’s company and his dream of becoming rich and influential through the oil business. Brittany wants to be a good and supportive wife but she works at the environment protection organization and seems to be very genuine about her beliefs.

Nico Tortorella stars in Jordan Jaffe's play “Crude,” at Theater 511 at Ars Nova. Credit Jenny Anderson

Nico Tortorella stars in Jordan Jaffe's play “Crude,” at Theater 511 at Ars Nova. Credit Jenny Anderson

The remainder of the play Jaime spends on drugs, smoking, sniffing and putting drugs up their butt, while brainstorming with his sidekick, Aaron (W. Tre Davis), and idea for a new commercial, which is supposed to save the reputation of Kurtz Petroleum in the public’s eyes. Aaron’s drug dealer, Manny (Jose Joaquin Perez), gets to be in the story in a couple of scenes but the show is mostly about Jaime at this point and we get to see how Nico Tortorella gains momentum of awesomeness as the play progresses. 

Tortorella’s intense, raw performance is captivating and irresistible. His “choreography” transforms a dull and tight set into a world of its own by demonstrating at least 50 different ways of sitting on a couch. He endears audience members to the rough text of Jaffe’s play and makes you love the ugly side of his character. 

There is something of a “movie” quality to Tortorella’s performance in scenes with Davis, where the audience doesn’t exist for the actor and he gets to be by himself and to just play off his scene partner. Yet that magical vibe of the organic existence on stage faded out in scenes with Huberth. This might sound like a description of the absence of “chemistry” but to me is a sign of a great actor’s intuition. 

The theatrical element is prevalent in the way the couple interacts, the example of it being the exercise that they do where they need to name three reasons why they appreciate each other. Despite Jaime being a modern young man, and not prude at all, he has surprisingly strong patriarchal views of women over which he constantly fights with Brittany. The seemingly conventional set design by Caite Havner suddenly looks quite bold in this context and emphasizes his conservative nature.

With a good amount of things that somebody might consider low brow and in bad taste, (like scratching the crotch and saying the word “fuck” 30 times in two minutes), Crude is full of self irony and little delicious nuances. Where else on stage will you see a classy whiskey carafe and a bag of dog poop. 

This is not a theatrical production to which you would take your grandmother. The good part is that all the salty humor is backed up with fresh and somewhat unconventional performances, inventive director’s work and a disturbing drama of the modern generation. So your grandmother might appreciate it just fine, though your 14-year-old niece wouldn’t be allowed in the theater.      

Crude is running Monday to Saturday at 8pm through May 21st in Theater 511 at Ars Nova (511 W 54th street, New York, NY). Tickets and more information here: