How I Paid for College

Marc Acito, whose Helen Hayes Award-winning tale of bird love, Birds of a Feather, graced the Hub Theatre stage last year, now returns to do a magic act. That is to say, his one-actor play How I Paid for College, in the hands of the fabulously gifted and flexible one actor, Alex Brightman, is a festival of misdirection. Brightman’s principal character, Edward Zanni, doesn’t actually pay for college. In fact, he doesn’t really do anything at all, except tell us a story.

Alex Brightman as Edward Zanni
(Photo: Melissa Blackall Photography)

It doesn’t matter. How I Paid for College, adapted from Acito’s novel of the same name, is an incredibly dense and satisfying exploration of craft – Acito’s and Brightman’s. Edward Zanni is a high school senior and the product of a broken home. His mother left years ago to “find herself” while touring with her “band.” (Edward uses air quotes a lot to describe his mother, for good and sufficient reasons). He is being raised by his hard-bitten New Jersey businessman father, Al, who has finally found true love (he thinks) with Dagmar, a self-involved model-cum-art photographer. Edward’s dream is to go to Julliard and become an actor. To Al, this is worse news than learning that Edward wants to go to India and become a snake charmer. Al refuses to fund Edward’s college ambition, and banishes him from the house.

How I Paid for College is also a festival of colorful characters, including Paula, the high school diva (who loves directing because “it combines my two favorite things: theater and telling people what to do”) and Natie Nudelman, Eddie’s diminutive bud and Bernie-Madoff-in-the-making, who actually hatches, and executes the highly illegal scheme to fund Eddie’s first year at Juilliard.

Eddie, Paula and Natie are casual two-bit criminals who dress in clerical costumes to lower the chances of being carded while buying booze and who filch a Buddha from a neighbor’s front yard. (Paula replaces it with a stolen crèche Jesus and a note “Gone on vacation. Please take care of Baby Jesus.”)

Once he has his falling-out with Al, Eddie camps out with the Nudelmans, and in particular with Natie’s lunatic grandmother, a psychotherapist. She has one remaining client, a depressed man she calls “the cryant”, and practices in the Nudelmans’ basement. (“I call it Florida,” she explains. “It’s a place down under where old Jews go to die.”) Dr. Grandma precipitates a crisis by giving the Buddha to the cryant – ah, but if you want to find out what happens, go read the novel or, better yet, see the show.

About ten minutes in you will forget that you are not watching a dozen actors, but only one, so smoothly and unfussily does Brightman move from one character to another. His Dagmar is a little – not bad, but conspicuous – but he moves into each other character with such ease and economy that when, for example, he becomes tough old Al you forget that three minutes earlier he was a haughty gay-bar piano-player.

Highly Recommended
World Premiere
How I Paid for College
Closes December 30, 2012
John Swayze Theatre
9431 Silver King Court
Fairfax, VA
1 hour, 20 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $15 – $30
Fridays thru Sundays

In fact, I haven’t seen so effective a portrayal of so many characters since I saw Jefferson Mays do I Am My Own Wife. Brightman is not Mays – no one is – but he uses a technique similar to Mays’s, and with the same good effect. And he appears to be a young fella, so who knows how good he’ll be when he is in his prime? What’s more, Brightman is in on Acito’s trick – and by inhabiting all the characters, he makes Edward appear much more involved than he actually is, which makes us much more involved than we otherwise would be.

Brightman sings a bit, too – pleasingly.

Finally, although How I Paid for College is a triumph for Acito and Brightman, it would be stupid to ignore the accomplishments of the other theater artists who conspire to put this terrific show together. Director Helen Pafumi takes great advantage of the Hub’s wide but shallow stage, moving Edward gracefully from New Jersey to New York and back again while Brightman moves but a few feet. With a one-actor play it’s hard to tell whether a spot-on interpretation of character is more due to the actor or the director but suffice it to say that whoever takes the credit, Brightman is fabulous in his multiple roles.

You will also (I bet) love Kristen Morgan’s set – a grouping of tiny identical New Jersey suburban homes, stretching even up the walls into infinity and evoking the life of monotony which was our worst fears as teenagers. Lighting designer Jimmy Lawlor is equally adept at invoking New Jersey and the Universe, and the always-reliable Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design is, as always, wonderful.


How I Paid for College by Marc Acito, Directed by Helen Pafumi. Featuring Alex Brightman. Lighting design by Jimmy Lawlor, Set design by Kristen Morgan, Sound design by Matthew M. Nielson (assisted by Patrick Calhoun), who also provided additional music and orchestrations, Costume design by Maria Vetsch. Carla Gerdes and Michael Gerdes served as Music Directors. Rebecca Griffith was the Stage Manager.

Other reviews
DCTS review

Brian Bochiccio . MDTheatreGuide
Celia Wren . Washington Post
Genie Baskir . ShowBizRadio
Francine Schwartz . DCMetroTheaterArts

Tim Treanor About Tim Treanor

Tim Treanor is a senior writer for DC Theatre Scene. He is a 2011 Fellow of the National Critics Institute and has written over 600 reviews for DCTS. His novel, "Capital City," with Lee Hurwitz, is scheduled for publication by Astor + Blue in November of 2016. He lives in a log home in the woods of Southern Maryland with his dear bride, DCTS Editor Lorraine Treanor. For more Tim Treanor, go to



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