Chicago Theatre Review
Love On the Rocks
Accidentally Like a Martyr – A Red Orchid Theatre
A gang of regulars, including a few middle-aged queens and a handful of slightly younger gay patrons, meet regularly at this “forgotten gay bar in Lower Manhattan.” Their attitudes range from a provocatively positive, wise-beyond-his-years young bartender named Jeffrey, to a bitter, sarcastic older queen called Charles. Between this diverse polarity are Edmund, an aging writer who leans toward the sardonic; Scott, a flirty middle-aged man with an eye for new conquests; Brendan, the hyper younger drug user/salesman, whose impulsive nature and quick temper frequently gets him into trouble. Then there’s J, a mysterious young pusher whose background inspires much discussion, and Mark, a handsome younger man, who wanders into the bar expecting to meet the stranger he’s connected with in an internet chat room. Each man has his own back story offering endless possibilities for exploration.
Grant James Varjas’ play, currently enjoying its Chicago premiere, bears a structural resemblance to Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” and even a similarity to O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” All three plays are set in seedy saloons populated by a wide spectrum of humanity, with each individual trying to survive while dealing with a myriad of personal problems and interacting with others. In Varjas‘ play, the men’s predicaments range from coping with aging, health issues and personal loss to being productive, handling financial difficulties and, of course, always looking for romance, or what passes for it. The playwright treats each character with honesty and empathy, particularly focusing on Mark’s sadly failed relationship. We eventually discover that his story will unite him with the other patrons in an unexpected and surprising way. Varjas‘ play isn’t linear, but instead moves back and forth in time. In this way, the playwright allows audiences to focus on certain characters, where they’ve originated and how they finally end up. All this makes for a fascinating piece of theatre.
The play’s raw, realistic dialogue combines flawlessly with a certain contemporary, urban poetry making this piece a pleasure, not only to see but also to hear. In the competent hands of talented director Shade Murray, his cast of seven actors aren’t simply playing roles; they’re breathing life into their characters, creating three-dimensional, realistic individuals who appear familiar. Handsome Steve Haggard, whose performances at a variety of Chicago theatres, is a standout as Mark. Bringing a shy, likable vulnerability to the role, Mr. Haggard creates a conflicted young man on the brink of self-discovery, thanks in part to the other men he meets in this bar. Doug Vickers‘ Charles is this establishment’s self-proclaimed monarch of the barstools, reigning over his less-than-worthy minions. Doling out caustic commentary and unedited criticism, Charles is that bitchy old queen who no one really likes but to whom everyone listens. Beneath all the clever quips lies a profound sadness, which Mr. Vickers masks with arrogance and alcohol.
Troy West is the irascible Edmund, sometimes frustrated by writer’s block, always troubled by a loveless and lonely life, he maneuvers through his world as best he can. Expertly played by Mr. West, Edmund deserves to be heard. An empty personal life has been replaced by his regular barstool empowering him as a sad philosopher of life. Edmund emerges as a sage, however, once he gets to know Mark. Gradually Mr. West demonstrates that Edmund has more to offer others than simply his loneliness. Layne Manzer, so impressive in the recent, “Hit the Wall,” is Brendan, the sparking live wire ready to ignite trouble at any moment. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, the young man has lost his focus but not his drive. Mr. Manzer plays Brendan with all the ferocity and nervous energy of a caged cheetah. With his darting eyes and twitchy mannerisms, the audience recognizes that it’s just a matter of time before he eventually explodes.
Dominique Worsley plays Jeffrey, the bartender, as the voice of reason, the persona of calm and care. A younger man than most of his patrons, Jeffrey mixes cocktails with professional finesse while administering advice, calming tempers and steering his customers away from sensitive subjects. He’s welcoming and sympathetic to every one of his customers, from the regulars to the newbies. Mr. Worsley is the one constant in this ever-changing den of drinkers. David Cerda, who usually appears in drag as Joan Crawford in his hilarious Hell in a Handbag productions, is affable and confident as Scott. Seen in flashbacks, the audience doesn’t understand at first what’s motivating this man with the handsome face, leering smile and cosmopolitan charm. Eventually the clues fall into place, the truth emerges and Scott’s mysterious relationship to everyone else becomes clear. As J, Luce Metrius demonstrates a certain contained charisma and strength, while casting a sinister spell over the other characters and employing necessary force when needed.
This production begins with a finely nuanced, well-written script, and features a talented cast in a smoothly directed production enhanced by realistic detail. John Holt’s dive is an actual working bar, decorated with fliers, Christmas lights and providing the appropriate entrances and exits to restrooms and the wintry outside world. A pulsating sound design created by Brando Triantafillou and suitable mood lighting by Rachel K. Levy lends a genuine air of authenticity to the environment. The audience, seated safely behind the counter, can enjoy Jeffrey’s expert mixology as he disperses cocktails and clear thinking to everyone at his bar. All that’s missing are refreshments for the voyeurs.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 15-March 1 by Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-943-8722 or by going to www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.