A CurtainUp Review
Written by SUMMER BANKS
Few productions that start off-off-Broadway manage to scrape their way to a commercial run. When they do, it's one of the more exciting moments in New York theater. Couple that rare moment with the opportunity to experience a new Off-Broadway venue, and Grant James Varjas' 33 to Nothing at the Wild Project is an late-summer event worth noticing.
Dubbed "a play with music," 33 to Nothing is a fairly straightforward examination of a struggling rock band gasping its last chords. What makes it so hip and edgy is that the lead singer and the lead guitarist used to date, and they're both men. By addressing homosexuality, what would be a conventional Behind the Music episode is appropriately updated for the New York stage. But it is a testament to the writing that the more compelling aspect of the play is the story of a man consumed by his addictions, and the friends who still love him.
The plot of the brief 90-minute one-act is simple. All the action takes place within a shabby rehearsal room as the band tries to rehearse for their next gig, until various revelations make it more of a train wreck than a rehearsal. Gray, the lead singer, played with an appropriate swagger by Varjas, swigs vodka and ice from the very beginning, and slowly sighs out all his lyrics directly to the guitarist, his ex-boyfriend Bri (Preston Clarke). The other band members are only so much dross, until the relationships between each start to become clear. Tyler (John Good) and Alex (Amanda Gruss), the rhythm guitarist and bassist, are married to each other, and best friends with Gray and Bri respectively.
Unfortunately, Barry (Ken Forman), the drummer, is left out of the relationships and seems largely two-dimensional as a result. Forman plays him as an overgrown puppy-dog, which makes him nice comic relief, but entirely forgettable as a character. This is in stark contrast to Clarke's portrayal of Bri. His subtle reactions to Gray's overt manipulations make him absolutely fascinating to watch. He's the only performer who is a musician first, which is obvious from his natural love for playing the songs. But it's somehow fitting that the others are more actors than musicians since, much as Gray tries, the band just isn't any better than mediocre.
The music is enjoyable enough, but its interest derives more from the dynamic between Gray, his lyrics and Bri, than any sonic qualities. It sounds as if it can't quite decide whether it wants to be mid-70s rock, late '80s hair metal or contemporary keyboard emo.
Varjas' writing is strong, and falls flat only when he tries to crack unnecessary gay jokes. The subject of homosexuality seems to be given attention at the expense of naturalism. If these people have been a band for longer than three rehearsals would they really have a ten-minute discussion about gay musicians? It would be a stronger statement, and a major step forward for pop culture, to just allow the characters to be gay— concerned with love, rent money and relatives, in addition to their homosexuality—without making it a huge deal. Mostly, 33 to Nothing does an excellent job of this. The psychological friction between Gray and Bri is more interesting, and powerful, than the fact that they are both men.
The jokes aside, it's refreshing to have such substantive gay characters in the typically hetero world of rock music represented on stage. Director Randall Myler has done an admirable job balancing the two stereotypes and created a cohesive ensemble in the process.
Working in the vein of middling rock band shag, lighting designer Brian Nason and scenic designer Paul Smithyman have made a perfect physical world of disarray. The graphic design (Michael Robinson) also deserves special mention: the sleek aesthetic and unusual photos adorning the program (Bryan Wizemann) and other materials are strikingly fresh and unique.
In the middle of the East Village bar scene, 33 to Nothing provides, at the very least, a substantive and rewarding solution to the awkward time between happy hour and the post-dinner scene. It's an excellent example of what makes New York small venue theater great: fresh material, innovative methods, and a respect for the human condition.