Accidentally, Like a Martyr

I don’t usually take you along with me when I go trouping off/off Broadway, but I’m making an exception because last evening I stumbled on a special treat and as it will run through January 7th, you might just catch it if you plan to be in New York during this next week.

From left: Chuck Blasius, Cameron Pow, Grant James Varjas, Keith McDermott (photo: Ahron R. Foster)

The treat was Accidentally, Like a Martyr – a new play written and directed by Grant James Varjas, who triple threats by playing the role of Brendan in it. It’s presented by Otherside Productions, a company devoted to the production of new works with gay themes. This play is in residence at Paradise Factory on East 4th Street in Manhattan.  That street is a mini-mall for theatre lovers, for it also houses LaMama and the New York Theatre Workshop and a 5-table tiny restaurant called  La Piccola Strada, which is a hole in the wall run by Josephine and Esperanza Cipriani, in which everything is cooked to order accommodating your every wish. It’s a ‘bring your own bottle’ gem of a joint.

But to return to the play at hand, it is one of those in the ‘bar play’ category, in the tradition of The Time of your Life, Small Craft Warnings and O’Neill’s  The Iceman Cometh. It is set in a small seedy gay bar on Manhattan’s lower east side; tended by a young man, played with control and humor by Brett Douglas. The clientele is mostly neighborhood older driftwood, the most content of whom would be a man named Edmund, middle-aged, gray haired, resigned. Charles is another regular, a man in deep mourning for his departed partner, who now takes refuge in the instant barb, the hilarious retort, the cruel destructive critique.  Varjas has given him wit and rage, and Keith McDermott, who once played the boy in Equus opposite Richard Burton on Broadway, is brilliant in the role.  Images of the late Clifton Webb in the film Laura kept showing up in my mind’s eye, but Mr. McDermott’s take on the character is his own and went further, and when the reason for his desolation emerged late in the proceedings, it was shattering.

Into the bar comes a stranger, a young man called Mark.  He is nervously awaiting the arrival of a man whom he’d been chatting with in a chatroom. He knows neither his name nor his email address, having only his username, “Griffin1897″.  This name has within it a clue as to who he actually is.

In conversation with the willing-to-listen Edmund (played eloquently by Chuck Blasius,) we learn he has been chronically lonely since the sudden death of his partner Scott four years earlier. When we meet him he has finally opened himself up to the dangers of this meeting with a total stranger.  More I cannot tell you, but I can promise that Mr. Varjas has kept his tale cooking at full boil right through to its haunting ending.  He uses, most effectively, a flashback technique that takes us briefly into another section of the bar for two scenes from an earlier time.

Mr. Varjas as director has served himself well as playwright  by keeping these transitions clear for us, and beginning with a prologue mime, he has captured the feeling of a bar full of transients coming and going.

The bleak watering hole with its feeble attempt at glamour is most effectively created by Clifton Chadick on sets and Brian Tovar on lights. You can feel the dampness, you can  smell the loneliness of this slightly disenfranchised group of acquaintances who cling to each other as survivors of a shipwreck might cling to flotsam as they wait for the rescue that will never come.

Roger Anderson’s sound design also contributes to the atmosphere most effectively. His use of a Callas aria emanating from a jukebox makes poignant support to a monologue that explains Charles more fully to us.

The Boys in the Band created a stir forty years ago when it introduced us to a world about which most of us knew little. Now comes Accidentally, Like A Martyr to bring to vivid life the survivors of that band of boys, now worn and scarred older men.  But survivors they are; some have connections that nourish them, some have only memories, but all are alive and you can rest assured they’ll be back tomorrow.

I found my one-night stand with them most rewarding, and I suggest that if you can’t get to see this totally satisfying production, you look for the play itself in one of your own neighborhood playhouses. For the sake of this gifted group of artists, I hope that some genius off Broadway producer will scoop this one up and move it to a proper venue where I think it would have long and profitable life.  That’s what happened to Venus In Fur last season, and I’m hoping that sort of lightning strikes twice.

Accidentally, Like a Martyr runs thru Jan 7, 2012 at Paradise Factory Theatre, 64 E. 4th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets 

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Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.

Read more at RichardSeff.com

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