Two guys walk into a bar and stage a play 

Last-Ditch Love

David Lee Nelson Returns to town with The Debate over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, NE

Jonathan Boncek

David Lee Nelson Returns to town with The Debate over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, NE

The timing couldn't be better. The first night after Valentine's Day weekend, director Adam Knight will premiere a play about a beset-upon man's last-ditch fight to stop his ex-girlfriend's engagement. And the whole thing is taking place in a bar. Get ready to cry in your beer, folks.

Playwright Mat Smart's The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, NE will make its Charleston debut in the upper room at Boone's Bar. The seating capacity is 50, the set will consist of a single microphone on a small platform, and audience members are invited to eat and drink while they watch. It's immersive theater, but not in the vein of Tony n' Tina's Wedding — in other words, don't worry, you won't be asked to embarrass yourself onstage.

Actor David Lee Nelson, best known in Charleston for his confessional solo shows at Piccolo Spoleto (The Elephant in My Closet, David Lee Nelson ... Status Update), plays the lead role of Scooner, a lovable townie who wants to win back his high school sweetheart. Nelson also played a part in convincing Boone's to host the show, and he describes the unorthodox setting as more than just a fun gimmick.

"I mean, with Shakespeare at the Globe, you had the rich people sitting around in the covered area, and then you had the groundlings who paid a penny to come in," Nelson says. "They were drinking, eating, and throwing things onstage if they didn't like it. This relationship with the audience was immediate."

In the play, the hapless Scooner receives the hard news that his ex-girlfriend Courtney (played by Becca Anderson) has met another man and gotten engaged. Scrambling to stop Courtney's impending nuptials to the "dickwad from California" James (Paul Rolfes), Scooner digs up the Morgan Morality Act, an obscure 19th-century law that's still on the books in Nebraska. The text of the law is as follows:

"In order to uphold the morality and public well-being of Columbus, Nebraska, it is hereby declared that a man who pledges that he had consensual, virginal intercourse with a woman has the right to challenge the engagement of that woman to any other man by way of public debate."

Citing the act, Scooner demands a debate in a local bar. James — who turns out to not be such a dickwad after all — grudgingly accepts the challenge, and Scooner's best friend and local newspaper reporter Terry (Brenna McNamara) agrees to moderate.

Knight has previously worked with Nelson on his solo shows, and he brings in some strong local talent for The Debate. Rolfes has enjoyed an eclectic career in TV acting, with roles on Eastbound & Down, Homeland, and the ABC soap One Life to Live. Anderson recently won a BroadwayWorld S.C. Award for Best Actress in a Musical (for 9 to 5 at the Dock Street Theatre) and had a banner year otherwise in 2013, with strong performances in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, and Boeing-Boeing.

The premise of The Debate is farcical and played for big laughs, but Nelson says there are elements of the characters' plights that have broader, even universal appeal.

First of all, there's Scooner, the small-town suit store employee who can't believe how quickly his first love has found romance again. "When you see your exes move on — especially right after Valentine's Day — it can be really difficult," Nelson says. Drawing from personal experience, Nelson says one of his most painful memories was dating a girl in college, breaking up, and realizing she had found another boyfriend within a week. "It was like, 'Didn't I mean anything to you?' and all this shit — well, of course I did, but then you doubt everything that's ever happened between the two of you. And I think that's what's going on with Scooner right now," Nelson says.

Then there's the predicament faced by Courtney, who might still have a soft spot for Scooner, despite protesting that the entire debate is a waste of time. "You have your new friends you really like and make you really happy, but then your old friends kind of embarrass you," Nelson says. "But you know, you fuckin' grew up with them, and you know them, and you love them. It can be a real conflict sometimes."

And finally there's James, who meets his lover's ex and discovers all the associated baggage. "It's awkward enough running into him at a bar one night, but then it's like, 'Oh, we're gonna have to fight this out, parliamentary style?' It's just nuts," Nelson says.

The Debate has been staged from New York to Los Angeles in venues including theaters and comedy clubs, but Nelson says he's excited to see it performed in a real bar.

"Theater isn't always at the Dock Street — and nothing against the Dock Street; I love that theater — but theater doesn't always have to cost $30 or $40. It can really be anywhere where there's one actor and one audience member," Nelson says. "Hopefully we get more than one, but that's all you need."



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