‘Nightjars’ comes up a little short

It only takes two set pieces for ‘Nightjars’ to tell its story. The first is a small campsite complete with a fire-pit, logs for seating and the sound of the birds to serenade you. The other consists of a few wooden tables, steel chairs and an FBI interrogator screaming in your ear.

The plot centers on a group of idealistic college kids who call themselves the ‘Nightjars’ – six activists who regularly meet at a campsite deep in the woods to discuss environmental issues.

But their fireside tradition is brought to an abrupt end when leader and co-founder Ben (Matt Bohnert) announces that the activist group will be no more. He’s tired off being all talk and no action. His fellow members don’t exactly comply.

Wisecracking Kyle (Cary Davenport) is the most at odds with Ben.’ Dawn (Rachel Perin), the group’s resident Wicca expert, blocks out Holtz’s announcement with chants. Robin (Emma Robertson), the group’s co-founder, is shocked by the announcement and is undeniably embarrassed for her newfound friend, Fareed (Matthew Geller), who happens to be there for this last meeting. Keri (Kaitlyn Marie Peace) and Traci (Sara Kenny) are so flabbergasted by Ben’s announcement they can’t think straight.

Unfortunately, the first act focuses mostly on the group arguing. Ben makes the situation worse when he suggests blowing up part of a coal plant.

The audience’s patience is tested in the first leg of’ ‘Nightjars.’ It isn’t long before you want something to actually happen. But nothing of any real importance does happen until the first act is almost over.

Then, the stage clears, the lights dim and you hear an explosion. FBI agents come storming out onto the campsite. ‘Call the chief,’ one agent says. It’s the first moment where there’s some real suspense and intrigue.

Just when you thought the play wasn’t going anywhere, it makes you second-guess yourself. The setting suddenly shifts to an unnamed detention center. All six Nightjars, including Fareed, are adorned in orange jumpsuits and are accompanied by hostile interrogators.

Spot-on lighting cues and brilliant blocking make you feel like you’re jumping back and forth between cells in the detention center.’

Methods of interrogation and the Patriot Act both stand out in these scenes – but not to the degree that they should. The methods of interrogation, aside from an intense beating the chief gives to one of the detainees, are lame to the point of being laughable. Dawn is subjected to an’ ‘ interrogator poking her and then putting on a tape of meowing cats on repeat in her cell.

Fareed, a Muslim who is not supposed to look at unknown woman’s body, is subjected to questioning by an interrogator in lingerie. The idea behind this scene is clear, but feels a tad arbitrary. The rest of the Nightjars get their hair pulled. These methods are indeed cruel, but for a play that wants to act as a representation of what’s wrong with torture and interrogation – the methods it explores are a bit weak.

Despite its failure to delve enough into the subjects it says it discusses, ‘Nightjars’ is entertaining as a whodunit story. The mystery of who blew up the coal plant and a few key performances keep you interested enough to stick around for the end.

Geller and Robertson deliver the two standout performances. Geller brings Fareed to life. He delivers every line with incredible passion. Robertson’s performance is understated but also brilliant. She flies under the radar for most of the play but then takes over the show in the last act.

By the end of ‘Nightjars,’ you are left both intrigued by the unfolding of the mystery and let down by what should have been a great commentary on where we are going as a country.