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A CurtainUp Review
The Altruists

The Altruists marks my third trip to the Vineyard to review a new Nicky Silver play. This latest outing even more than the first makes me wish CurtainUp had been in existence to review some of the plays on which Silver's reputation was built such as Pterodactyls, Raised in Captivity, and The Food Chain. The Maiden's Prayer (1998) wasn't bad, but neither did it have the incisiveness one had come to associate with Silver's work. Eros Trilogy (1999) was again disappointing. With The Altruists, the value of Silver has plummeted still more. Even with a stalwart cast and one of his favorite collaborators, David Warren, at the helm, it adds up to ninety minutes of theater that despite occasional bursts of cynical humor ends up being not only disappointing but irritating.

At the risk of repeating myself (as in my review of The Director) Silver's new comedy of misplaced morality could be subtitled "five fine actors in search of a substantial play." The quintet of actors do their darndest to breathe life into the navel-gazing neurotics who populate Neil Patel's smartly designed three bedrooms. Too bad the playwright didn't do more life support on his script before allowing it to make the leap from page to stage.

The setup of three bedrooms and three interlinked situations is reminiscent of Peter Ackerman's Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight. However, that play was a first venture and did not aspire to be more than an amusing live sitcom style entertainment. But Mr. Silver's days as a clothing salesman at Barney's are long behind him. There's nothing wrong in sticking to his basic obsessions and playwriting hallmarks (notably long big on laughs monologues). But even Silver's most devoted fans are entitled to signs of real maturity and some fresh insights. What they get instead is a comedy that's more mean-spirited than high spirited, with an element of mystery that's about as suspenseful as watching paint dry.

At first we see only one spare bedroom which is occupied by Ronald, a schlemielish gay social worker (Joey Slotnik) who has discovered good word to be "just exhausting. When this platform set flips out, Ronald's gated window East Village pad is flanked by the even grungier one of Cybil (Kali Rocha), a revolutionary lesbian with a decidedly hetero bent, and the luxurious co-op of Ronald's sister Sydney (Veanne Cox), a manic soap opera actress. The object of both these women's passion is the opportunistic do-gooder referred to as Ethan (Sam Robards) throughout the play, though listed in the program notes as Swallow. His do-good causes -- and by extension Cybil's, are supported by nonaltruist Sydney's filthy lucre. Ronald, like his sister is involved, in a pay-for-lay affair, his toy boy being a male hooker named Lance (a hunky and sympathetic Eddie Cahill). Lance is also the pivot for the title's chilling double meaning.

All these people have histories to narrate and do. Veanne Cox gives a bravura performance as the lead neurotic. She gets and makes the most of the most typically Silverian monologue -- a lengthy, shrill primal scream that establishes her dysfunctional relationship with the exploitative Ethan, trots out a string of Silverian one liners, and literally explodes with a gun shot. Well, this is advertised as "a tale of murder and mayhem!

So what's a girl who thinks she's shot her lover to do. She runs to her brother naturally. He may have finally discovered love, but he remains an emotional as well as social nebbish. Thus it's not hard for Sydney and Ethan to get him to throw his love to the sharks -- oops, I mean the altruists. No, I'm not overlooking something. Ethan, it turns out is not the body in Sydney's bed and his reappearance, self-absorbed as ever, is a great relief though it doesn't alter Sydney's smoking gun dilemma.

So there you have all the elements for a satire made to order for this playwright beloved for his razor sharp 90s comedies: an immature, unlovable group of New Yorkers whose commitment to do-good causes is hardly in keeping with their soft as eclair moral spines. The altruist angle has a strangely sixtyish flavor which makes for an edge that has all the sharpness of a rubber knife. The mystery on which the plot turns offers fewer page-turning surprises than the playwright's nonmysteries like Fit to Be Tied.

The cross-cutting between the three bedrooms has its funny moments. The actors amirably handle their difficult freeze poses when not in the action -- like the models occasionally hired to pose as mannequins in SoHo shop windows.

According to Mr. Silver's home page (Nicky Silver's Home Page) he is an avid tennis enthusiast. One of the rules of that game is you either play the net or the back court. If you're caught in between, you're in what's known as dead man's territory. Unfortunately that's exactly where the characters in The Altruists spend most of their time.

By Nicky Silver
Directed by David Warren

Cast: Starring Veanne Cox, Sam Robards: With Joey Slotnick, Kali Rocha and Eddie Cahill.
Set Design: Neil Patel
Lighting Design: Ken Posner
Costume Design: Teresa Snider-Stein
Sound and original music: John Grimada
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission 2/17/2000-4/08/2000; opening 3/06/2000
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. ((Park Av S./Irving Place), 353-0303
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/02 performance