Behold the wretch. He squats before you, sputtering and muttering, shaking his sweat-drenched, alcohol-infused head and slapping his thigh repeatedly. He sorts through his bag of garbage, occasionally opening a piece of refuse, scribbling furiously on it, and throwing it away. His eyes dart back and forth, as though he is on the lookout for God. His name is – well, I don’t know what his name is, but it’s not Roger.
If you ran across him on H Street NE, a block or two away from the gentrification zone, you would cross the street to avoid him. But in the Tree House Lounge, you have paid seventeen dollars to see him, and he sits not fifty feet away.
This is the superb actor Matthew Vaky, and non-Roger is his creation – a paranoid schizophrenic, perhaps, who medicates his condition with prodigious amounts of cheap booze, or else an alcoholic whose nightmares have become indistinguishable from reality. He has devised a uniform field theory of conspiracy, going back to the fifteenth century and involving Christopher Columbus, the mafia, Thomas Jefferson, 19th-century Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who ran the conspiracy to murder Lincoln) and J. Edgar Hoover, who was paymaster and control for Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray.
He is eager to tell you about it, non-Roger is, as long as you are not the police. He tells you about his long-dead second-grade classmate, who he now imagines was his friend, and also about his brief career at NASA. He will give you paper and pencil to take notes, and if you do not do so he will be mightily disappointed. (If you do take notes, he will critique them, much as I am critiquing his show. “That’s not even my real name!” he roars at some unfortunate lady in the audience, whose sole addition to the blank page was “ROGER”.)
He hands you a chart which explains it all, including such startling information as Larry Flynt having naked pictures of both JFK and RFK, which is what caused the enraged Hoover to go on his killing spree. The remarkable thing about this theory is that, with a few exceptions (Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Edward Snowden, who it turns out worked for NASA, not NSA) everyone involved in this conspiracy appears to be dead.
At the center of the conspiracy is NASA and more specifically the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble is not only the center of the conspiracy, it is the center for the surprising and somewhat upbeat conclusion, reached through the same hazy logic as non-Roger reaches his other conclusions.
ROGER (Not His Real Name)
Written and directed by Matthew Vaky
Directed by Gillian Drake
Details and tickets
Vaky, who did a memorable Chesapeake for the late, lamented Bay Theatre and who has made subsequent appearances in various Fringe productions, sells his character so convincingly that you instinctively recoil when he comes out into the audience to stare you in the face, or lay his hand upon your shoulder. The sweat is real, and although you’re pretty sure that the stuff inside his bottle of MD 20/20 is iced tea you can almost smell the alcohol perfume on him. He and director Gillian Drake are a powerful team, and every moment in the production drips with verisimilitude.
Alas and goddam, what they have created so convincingly is a character with whom you would never voluntarily spend ten minutes, unless you were a mental health professional being paid for your time. Conspiracy theorists – even healthy ones – are a tedious lot, requiring you to accept their unusual and obscure premises in order to reach their astonishing conclusions. When a conspiracy theorist is as obviously damaged as non-Roger is, you look for a polite exit after three minutes, and if you are still listening to his monologue after fifteen, your evening is ruined. Knowing that ROGER is only a play is, oddly, a relief.