Nicky Silver's New One's No Good; Reverend Billy's Is

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    The Altruists By Nicky Silver Nicky Silver, who became an Off-Broadway sensation in the mid-1990s with such stylishly perverse plays as The Food Chain, Pterodactyls and Raised in Captivity, is turning out to be the textbook case of arrested adolescence in American playwriting. Two years ago, I was inclined to overlook the clumsy contrivances in his psychologically flimsy The Maiden's Prayer, because I thought I saw him reaching for a new level of comic seriousness via a conventional realism he couldn't really handle. His The Eros Trilogy last year, though?two thirds of which was recycled from his 1991 play Free Will & Wanton Lust?was a discouraging return to his familiar glib and affectedly quirky skimming of neurotic surfaces, and his new play The Altruists is more of the same. One wonders, if he's really going to spend his entire career poking at life with a dandyish verbal walking stick rather than developing any truly intimate or ruminative relationship to it, why he doesn't just go write for tv. Straw figure one is Ronald (Joey Slotnick), a homely, gay, do-good social worker from a wealthy family, who never stops talking about himself long enough to let anyone get a word in edgewise, including those he's bent on helping. Straw figure two is Ethan Swallow (Sam Robards), a leather-jacketed hooligan whose radicalism seems to stem from the sexual and partying opportunities political rallies offer, and who shamelessly sponges off his rich girlfriend ("Firebombs don't grow on trees"). Straw figure three is Cybil (Kali Rocha), an angry, pigtailed Larchmont kid-turned-activist who can't remember what she's protesting, and who insists she's a lesbian but keeps having sex with men (most recently Ethan). And straw figure four is Sydney (Veanne Cox), Ronald's sister and Ethan's girlfriend, a stick-thin, frenetically peppy soap actress in shocking pink, who hates leftists and likes Times Square better since it was Disneyfied, and rants for more than 10 minutes to that effect at a motionless, covered figure on the bed. Sydney is Silver's nod to political fairness, and her ranting at the bed is also the closest the play comes to memorable humor. The plot turns on various drolly unromantic sexual encounters, the accidental killing of Cybil's abusive lover Audrey by Sydney, and the cynical decision by all four straw figures to pin the crime on Lance (Eddie Cahill)?a pretty hustler Ronald picked up at the Ramrod, assuming he'd really connected emotionally with him. The cheap predictability of this decision ruins the comic potential of the figure-in-the-bed gag, and also leaves the actors, in this harried production directed by David Warren, looking desperate to rise above the deadly sketchiness of their characters and the play's trite and simplistic moral that people are nothing but posturing, selfish liars. Two of the actors have spotty success at this: Cox, during the brief calms in Sydney's distended panic attack, and Cahill, after Lance (the only character conceived with any compassion) decides to accept Ronald's offer of help. The other performers can do little more than gamely try not to drown in the confused torrent of spite and compulsive cleverness pouring from their mouths.

    Vineyard Theater, 108 E. 15th St. (betw. Union Sq. E. & Irving Pl.), 353-0303, through April 8.

    Momma, I Been Dot Commed By Reverend Billy As an antidote to Silver's compassion-exhaustion, I suggest a visit to one of the remaining Sunday-night comic church services by Reverend Billy at the Salon Theater, directed by Tony Torn. With the 300-seat house packed to overflow on March 5 in the wake of the Times "Arts and Leisure" article about the reverend the previous week (written by yours truly), the first of his four shows, Momma, I Been Dot Commed, was an unprecedented scene for an artist who (before the success of his "Millennium's Neighborhood" festival in December) usually drew crowds of 25 to 50. The main question for the Salon evenings was how to adapt his act to scaled-up circumstances, including postperformance excursions into public spaces to commit political actions. This was accomplished with admirable humor and ingenuity. For those who tuned in late, Reverend Billy, Minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, is a character developed by the actor and monologist Bill Talen in the mid 1990s as a vehicle for social activism. After preaching regularly on the sidewalk outside the Times Square Disney Store, Talen graduated to anticonsumerist "preach ins" and political actions inside the store, leading to several arrests, and then to solo shows in theaters around town. During the past year, he has also returned to his old role of impresario (for seven years, he was co-artistic director of the San Francisco alternative theater Life On the Water), finding himself at the center of a remarkable conflux of local grassroots causes. Lately, diverse community groups have been seeking his support as they might that of an actual spiritual leader.

    Each of the comic church services this month is cosponsored by a different group or groups and is dedicated to a particular theme. That of March 5 was the "dot-comming" of the neighborhood around the Salon Theater (where Talen happens to live), but the crux of the evening was still, as in his previous solo shows, the extraordinary relationship he builds with his typically cool, downtown audience members. More numerous than usual on this occasion, the crowd seemed just as eager as his regular followers to make the leap from laughing at a parody-televangelist to exploring the edges of real belief beyond endless cleverness. As a properly administered placebo is, under certain circumstances, more effective than medicine, so is a phony preacher sometimes more inspirational and comforting than a real one.

    The effectiveness of Talen's act depends on maintaining a tricky balance between slickness and deliberate ineptitude, between the knowingly fake and the real, and this is especially tricky to apply to other performers. He and Torn nevertheless incorporated a nine-member comic gospel choir, four musicians and a handful of fake "deacons," who greeted spectators with toothpaste-ad grins and walked around asking to hear confessions of "shopping sins." The choir, dressed in bright blue robes and ridiculous, ill-fitting wigs, sang antishopping spirituals (with one singer, Derrick McGinty, splitting off for powerful solos) and also sat at the back beneath crucified Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls encouraging Billy to "tell it" and "take your time, Rev."

    At one point, two choir members rose to offer "the reading of the Word" (a steamy poem by Walt Whitman), added "a word from the Devil" (the text of a billboard) and then "a word from our sponsor, Walter Benjamin" (about the perpetual distraction of people in consumer societies). That the church's anti-faith was not merely a new form of sloganeering was driven home when the audience was asked to chant along with a series of "We believe..." statements printed in the program, which all made perfect sense but grew steadily longer, more complex and unchantable. ("We believe in the god that people who don't believe in god?believe in." "We believe that massive quantities of emptiness are delivered at the speed of light to great crowds of stunned people who need violence to?focus their eyes." "We believe in saying your first name as we look in your eye and let your first name and the gaze just keep going with that sensuality that a kind of friendship can have whether we make love or not and we believe that we won't let that gaze be snapped off by?'Excuse me I've got to take this call.'")

    Several anticonsumerist "saints" (representatives of the Lower East Side Collective and Rtmark) were "canonized." An attractive female choir member possessed by a "shopping demon" was exorcised?a strenuous process involving surreptitious humping that caused the reverend to lose his clerical collar. The audience also happily waved their credit cards in the air "like fields of wheat," though many disappeared back into pockets and wallets when the reverend shouted, "We will now demagnetize them!" (He accomplished this by waving his tux jacket at them.)

    All this was fun and new, but the high point, as always, was the reverend's own sermon?a remarkable fusillade of hilarious and penetrating observations, exhortations, images, gestures and expressions, this time about the blight of corporate advertising in his once-individualistic neighborhood, which I won't even try to paraphrase. (The sermon is different each week.) The evening's few technical glitches were quickly forgotten?a half-hour delay due to set-up problems, a malfunctioning paint-ball slingshot during the postshow billboard-destruction?and the pumped-up crowd was still largely intact and chatting among themselves 20 minutes afterward, blocks from the theater.

    Late-breaking follow-up: a few days after this show, the NYPD, citing an ordinance of the Environmental Control Board, served the Church of Stop Shopping with $10,000 in fines (one hundred $100 summonses) for putting up posters in downtown neighborhoods to advertise its shows.

    The Salon Theater, 45 Bleecker St. (at Lafayette St.), 982-3899, through March 26.