On the surface, the plot to David Lee Nelson's latest play bears a striking similarity to two celebrated works, Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. After all, Nelson's A Sudden Spontaneous Event, a comedic drama of sorts, centers around a recently deceased character who wakes up in the afterlife and finds herself in a waiting room. There, she's greeted by her case worker, a guardian angel named Wilfred. The angel then offers Carole a chance to return to the real world and better her chances of getting into heaven, but only if she's willing to make a sacrifice, the loss of her voice.
While Nelson acknowledges the similarities between A Sudden Spontaneous Event and both Sartre's play and the Jimmy Stewart classic, the playwright never set out to emulate either one of those works. Instead, it all began with an intense fascination with aphasia, the sudden inability to speak.
Nelson was back home in Greenville, and he saw a story about a 40-year-old triathlete who had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. Perhaps because Nelson is both an actor and a stand-up comedian, this story struck a creative nerve. "I became obsessed with speech and words and who we are if we can't speak to other people," he says.
And so Nelson began constructing a character who would be impacted by this more so than the average person. Enter Carole, a motor-mouth attorney. Off the bat, Nelson wrote a monologue for her, but eventually he began scripting a back-and-forth conversation between Carole and another character. At the time, the playwright had no idea who this character even was. It was simply a conversation, completely unattached to a plot. The more he worked on Sudden, the more he began thinking of a fellow actor, Joy Vandervort-Cobb. "It was a couple of months into it that I began to hear Joy's voice," he says.
Of course, this wasn't a surprise for Nelson. In fact, it's a technique he regularly employs whenever he begins working on new characters. "They're all based on someone, usually a collection of people. It helps me get out of my own head," he says. "Once I start it, they take on a life of their own."
But as much as Carole was inspired by Vandervort-Cobb, Nelson knew that when crafting his fast-talking lawyer, he could write whatever he felt regardless of how his prospective leading lady might say it. "Joy is so talented. You don't have to write something to fit her. She'll fit it for herself," Nelson says.
Having read Sudden, it's virtually impossible to not picture Vandervort-Cobb as the vain yet passionate Carole with every word that she speaks. It's similar in the way that having watched Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter affects how you read one of J.K. Rowling's novels about the boy wizard. Of course, this isn't a bad thing. Vandervort-Cobb is an energetic and charismatic personality, and she's an ideal fit for Carole, as are the challenges that she faces, most evident in the play's third act when the lawyer returns to Earth with the inability to speak.
Oddly enough, Nelson himself was affected in a similar way when he first watched the British-born Scott Smith read for the role of the guardian angel Wilfred. Up until that point, the angel's earthly background was nebulous. But that changed, Nelson says when "I heard his voice." Not having seen Smith act before, it'll be interesting to see what his British-ness brings to the role, although we imagine that it contributes to what Nelson says is the character's eagerness and politeness.
The second and third acts are largely driven by other characters, whose names and descriptions we won't bring up in an effort to preserve an important plot point — it's not so much a twist as it is a logical extension of Carole's journey, albeit one the viewer may not see coming. However, it's worth noting the first act employs Nelson's signature wit, as the back-and-forth between Carole and Wilfred is briskly funny, a fact that is later magnified by the tempered sidesteps of the second act and the measured beats of the third. Still, whenever Carole and Wilfred are together, the play is lifted by Nelson's playfulness.
There is perhaps no better example of the writer's comedic touches than Sudden's best, and ongoing, gag. While in the afterlife waiting room, Wilfred has been charged with getting Carole to answer questions about her time on Earth for a customer satisfaction form that the angel has to turn over to his superiors. It's a thankless task for both parties, but one that they both must complete, and it, perhaps more than any other element in the play, comments on our collective experiences. That's not a dig, but an acknowledgment of just how much of our lives are spent filling out one form after another, and it's much to Nelson's credit that he finds a novel way to tap into our mutual disdain.
"I'm just fascinated with things that just have to get done," he says, admitting that he simply thought it was funny that even in heaven, our characters wouldn't be able to escape paper-pushing drudgery.
And that friends is where Sartre got it wrong. Hell isn't other people. It's paperwork.