Evan Parke and David Grimm in Steve & Idi
(© Sandra Coudert)
Evan Parke and David Grimm in Steve & Idi
(© Sandra Coudert)
Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme are nowhere to be found in David Grimm's intense and disturbing dark comedy, Steve & Idi, now at Rattlestick Theatre. Instead, the play focuses on a frustrated playwright named Steve (played by Grimm) who, in his darkest hour, is visited by the ghost of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Evan Parke), who wants Steve to write his life story.

Steve is a flawed and lonely individual whose personal and artistic frustrations lead him further and further into the darkest recesses of his soul. Dumped by both his long-distance boyfriend Daniel and his literary agent Margaret early on in the show, he grows suicidal and possibly mad. He alienates his friends and fellow writers Ralph (Greg Keller) and Max (Zachary Knower), and is cruel to his one -- or possibly two -- night stand, Brad (Michael Busillo).

In a scene that is campily reminiscent of the angel's arrival in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Idi Amin bursts into Steve apartment (nicely rendered by set designer Kris Stone). But is he really there? Max can't see him when he stops by for a visit, leading to one of the funnier scenes in the play as the manic Steve tries to have separate conversations with his two guests. But Idi's presence definitely has an effect on Steve's behavior as the former neat-freak's living quarters grow more and more untidy, and Steve puts pen to paper to chronicle Idi's life.

The play doesn't shy away from some of the more horrific details of Idi Amin's rule, including a rather grisly account of the dismembering of one of his wives. And the more that Steve and Idi interact, the darker Steve's own actions become. A second act monologue in which he quietly details all of the horrible things he would do to Daniel if he ever saw him again shows just how far Steve has fallen.

As an actor, Grimm proves to be a strong interpreter of his own work, detailing the roller-coaster ride of Steve's emotions. Parke has a strong presence and handles the shifts in Idi's demeanor with ease, making him imposing in one moment, and ridiculous the next. Knower, who has an easygoing, frank manner as Max, seems genuinely hurt when he thinks Steve has betrayed him. Busillo and Keller make the most of their slimly written roles.

Early in the play, Steve has a discussion with Ralph and Max about whether or not all writing is inherently political and if a playwright should examine the intentions behind his words. At that moment, they're talking about abortion and a possibly pro-life sentiment that Max may or may not be expressing in his writing. But the same principal can be applied to Grimm's own work. What exactly is he intending by including a not-so-unsympathetic depiction of one of the most vicious dictators in history?

As Max says in the play, "Maybe all I want is to write what's inside me even if sometimes I don't understand it. As long as it's honest. And to me, this story is about a human being facing a human situation in a very human and fallible way." Steve & Idi may not have the tidiest of resolutions, but it does feel very honest. And perhaps it's the work's ambiguity that is also its greatest strength.