ChicagolandTheaterReviews.com
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   Accidentally, Like a Martyr

                        At A Red Orchid Theatre

                                    By Dan Zeff

Chicago – “Accidentally, Like a Martyr” at A Red Orchid Theatre is a “Cheers” kind of play, a assortment of men gathering in a neighborhood bar to exchange wisecracks and mull personal problems. But the bar is on the lower east side of New York City instead of Boston and the clientele is exclusively gay.

The 2011 comedy/drama by Grant James Varjas certainly breaks no new dramatic ground. This kind of saloon drama goes back generations in American theater. The play has no central narrative. Instead, it has shards of different stories that partially coalesce toward the end. But the plot, mixing and matching the heavy drinkers at the bar, is sometimes difficult to follow, especially with its unexpected shifts in time throughout its 80-minute duration (most of the action takes place the Monday evening before Christmas).

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

The play is rooted in the kind of bitchy humor that has been a major trope of gay plays going back to “The Boys in the Band” in 1968. It also explores the generation gap between young gay men and the older men who feel discarded because of their age. The two elders in the bar are a supercilious but funny and intelligent man named Charles (superbly played by Doug Vickers) and Edmund (equally well played by Troy West). The waspish Charles and recovering alcoholic Edmund attempt to put brave faces on lonely lives devastated by the loss of an irreplaceable partner.

Charles and Troy are in charge of most of the play’s wit and wisecracks. The younger characters have more serious matters they are trying to work through, especially Brendan, a former policeman defrocked for his involvement with drugs, a jittery, intense soul who knows he’s blown his life.

The play’s dramatic temperature rises with the appearance of a newcomer named Mark, who enters the bar expecting to meet a new man set up through the Internet. Mark gradually comes apart emotionally, especially after revelations that Brendan sold perhaps a fatal dose of drugs to Scott, Mark’s lover four years previously. I didn’t follow exactly how the triangle worked, though Brandon may have been in love with Scott, but in the play’s most explosive moment, Mark attacks Brendan physically before fleeing distraught into the night.

But it’s not the plot that carries the play, it’s the dialogue and the various subtexts, like the disconnect between older and younger gay men, the loneliness of the gay life for partnerless men, and even a debate about the merits of disco music. The bar is a surrogate home for the rootless characters who have formed a kind of family, united by their gayness and solidified by their thirst for hard liquor as a balm for their pain.

The spot-on Red Orchid ensemble maximizes the virtues of the Varjas script, keeping the salty dialogue moving at high velocity. The humor is edgy, the kind of backchat the men exchange nightly as they drink away the empty hours to the break of the next day. The characters don’t wallow in guilt and self-pity, a gay dramatic cliché, but they aren’t happy with their lives, and they shouldn‘t be. But they soldier on with their wry humor and sometimes their melodrama.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Vickers’s Charles and West’s Edmund are the two most entertaining characters in the play but the central figure is Brendan, superbly played with wired desperation by Layne Manzer. Steve Haggard is very good (though his character mutters too much) as the newcomer Mark who briefly elevates the action to the boiling point. David Cerda plays Scott in flashbacks and Dominique Worsley plays the constantly pouring bartender, with Luce Metrius appearing in an unneeded cameo role as a visitor who isn’t what he seems. Everyone is first rate, well suited to the physical, vocal, and emotional demands of their characters.

Shade Murray directs, keeping the comedy funny and the drama intense in a compatible blend. His production works so well and is so deftly cast that viewers can leave the theater comfortable that they have seen a staging that gives the play the most insightful and entertaining possible hearing.

John Holt’s set makes a virtue of the theater’s limited intimate playing area. The audience sits on three sides, enclosing the bar from the rear, so most spectators see the action from the bartender’s viewpoint. Except for a single brief fight scene and lots of entrances and exists, there isn’t much physical action but Murray’s directing never allows the action to sag. A shout out also goes to costume designer Karen Kawa, lighting designer Rachel Levy, and sound designer Brando Triantafillou who combine to reinforce the sight and sound of the play’s tight, grungy little world.

“Accidentally, Like a Martyr” is a small play in length and it doesn’t try for too much. The characters are audience high--human and sympathetic, trying to get by as best they can. Mostly Varjas provides red meat roles that the Red Orchid ensemble devours. Seekers after fine acting and finely tuned staging should be well pleased. The title comes from a rueful romantic song recorded in 1978 by rock composer Warren Zevon. The moral of the story may be that love can cause much pain, no matter what the lover’s sexual preference.

“Accidentally, Like a Martyr” runs through March 1 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 and $35. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
                 
                 The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

     Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com           January 2015

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