Accidentally, Like a Martyr
A memorable ensemble takes the stage at A Red Orchid in Grant James Vargas' tale of aging gay barflies.
So a cop, a coke addict, an Oscar Wilde worshipper, an acerbic gent who dreads going home, and a comparatively youthful fellow looking for his blind date walk into a gay bar for a long night of revelations, confrontations, and bitchy bons mots. Grant James Vargas' Accidentally, Like a Martyr would seem to echo Mart Crowley's 1968 portrait of gay life The Boys in the Band, yes? Not exactly. In the nearly five decades that have passed since Crowley's seminal drama, the players and the played-out gathered in a dive have changed, as has the world around them.
Still, with A Red Orchid Theatre's compelling, compassionate and tart-tongued staging of this play, it's difficult to not feel reverberations of Crowley's earlier work. Directed by Shade Murray with keen insight and an ear for both sharp comedy and equally pointed sorrow, Vargas' understated drama doesn't break any new ground, but it doesn't need to. The drama succeeds as a contemplative, bitingly funny, unbearably sad exploration of the intersection of grief, aging, and the gnawing sense that all of your shoulda, woulda, coulda opportunities are behind you, lost forever.
Vargas' plot is deceptively simple: A bunch of aging gays gathers in a decidedly unhip bar. But the play's structure, with its action moving between 2007 and 2011, gives the story layers and context. The changes that the characters make or fail to make over the years resonate like quietly but steadily recriminating ghosts. Every shot and every cocktail comes with an infusion of either hope or resignation, the latter growing ever stronger during the 2011 scenes.
Vargas' title comes from a Warren Zevon song, whose key refrain intones, "the hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder." That's a harsh assessment of aging, but it's an accurate one for this group of barflies.
Revealing much about the plot would only result in spoilers. Suffice it to say this is a rock-solid ensemble piece, with a seven-man cast who create bone-deep characters that roil up your emotions with an intensity usually reserved for real-life relationships.
There's the twitchy, tragic, ex-cop coke head, Brendan (Layne Manzer, pitch-perfect as an addict whose life has been reduced to the compulsive cycle of scoring and using). He's in serious debt to his dealer, Jay (Luce Metrius, oozing menace and a destructive sexual energy), who is entangled in a disturbing relationship with Scott (David Cerda), another of his customers. The elder statesman of the group is Edmund (Troy West, magnificent as a low-rent Lear with no Cordelia to edge him toward salvation), a man who survived the AIDS pandemic only to learn the bitter lesson that aging has made him invisible within his own culture. He would be heartbreaking, were he not so astringently unsentimental. There's also Charles (Doug Vickers, an expertly calibrated mix of bitchiness and pathos), an Oscar Wilde wannabe whose exquisitely put-together attire and needling bons mots make him at once insufferable and endearing.
Finally there's Mark (Steve Haggard), the group's token "baby" (who is clinging to his 30s), waiting on a blind date. He's a man who still has his looks but also radiates a whiff of despair just strong enough to indicate that he too is fated to become just another old-timer terrified of last call and the prospect of going home. As for bartender Jeffrey (Dominique Worsley), he's got the countenance of somebody who has seen it all, done it all, and is simply too weary to care anymore.
You could argue that the lead character is set designer John Holt's rendition of a Lower East Side dive. From the grasshopper-spewing blender to the plastic tubs where the dirty glasses are stowed to the seedy looking men's room door, the meticulously detailed bar isn't a mere set, it's an all-immersive environment.
Grief looms large in this place, and with it, the entangled terror of aging out in a world that's far more interested in the hipsters and twinks at the far more upscale cocktail lounge up the block.
Yet for all its darkness, Accidentally, Like a Martyr is not a slog through despair among lost souls. It's a contemplative, provocative piece that glimmers with just enough hope that you wind up rooting for these enduring, endearing characters.