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Dubious Do-Gooders

'The Altruists' is a dark comedy inventively directed and absolutely worth seeing

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This is really a nifty little play. Nicky Silver's The Altruists comes to us from the folks at Winding Road Theater Ensemble, and is 90 minutes of refreshment for heat-weary Tucsonans. It's quirky and smartly theatrically imagined and will make you wince even as it makes you laugh. Director Christopher Johnson and his cast do a nice job delivering the goods.

The focus is on four individuals, three of whom have marched, sat-in, protested, and supported with their moral outrage and outspokenness every cause in the book. The fourth, a successful soap opera actress interested in expensive things and looking good, has absolutely no interest in this sort of do-gooding. But because of her relationship with the others—one is her brother, another, her lover—she is a de facto part of this group, whose members take advantage of her wealth to help underwrite their activist lifestyles. There is a fifth character that gets caught up in the whirlwind of the others, who most ungraciously hand him the wrong end of a very nasty stick in an effort to protect themselves.

These folks are not so righteous and responsible when it comes to covering their own asses. In fact, their selfish actions are appalling.

The visual focus for the action consists of three pared-down bedrooms. Johnson has wisely chosen not to use the tiny stage in the upstairs Cabaret at the Music of Temple and Art, and has configured the space so that we are almost in the bedrooms with these folks, who spend considerable time in their undies. The story is set up by a series of short scenes, switching—often with actors suspended mid-speech—from one bedroom to another, with lighting helping us know where to focus. It's a clever bit of playwriting, letting us get to know a bit about these people while building a sense of momentum by intertwining their stories. It also establishes a sense that these folks are connected, although to what extent is not obvious immediately.

We get to know Ronald (Evan Werner), a young gay man who speaks to us about his affluent background, wherein he grew up without a clue that others were not so fortunate. He's now a welfare worker, sitting in his cubicle helping the downtrodden fill out paperwork appealing for social services. Werner gives a charming performance. His Ronald craves love and is willing to delude himself to find it, particularly if by doing so he feels he can rescue an unfortunate victim of oppression. That he gives us this sweet, likeable character from the get-go is critical, because the others are not quite so agreeable. There's Cybil (Dani Dryer), a strong, black-haired, black-booted lesbian who seems a little too eager to sleep with men rather than her lover, Audrey, with whom she is on the verge of breaking up—but not because she isn't a lesbian, she insists. "I am a lesbian politically!" she declares. She cares about cultivating her role as a rebel more than she does about what she's protesting on any given day. She can't remember what the rally de jour is, and so doesn't know whether to bring stink bombs or firebombs.

Shanna Brock as Sydney the actress also gives a strong performance, so self-absorbed, we find in an overlong speech to her sleeping bedmate, that she is actually dangerous. Eric Anson is Ethan, her philandering boyfriend with whom she is alternately angry and love-filled. He seems to be the unofficial leader of the group, committed to giving a voice to those who, because of poverty or gender or sexuality or general injustice, don't have one—as long as his own interests are taken care of. He's not at all above taking advantage of Sylvia's well-appointed home and fat checkbook.

Lance (Brad Bultman) is a young, rather vacant-headed hustler who has spent the night with Ronald, although Ronald seems surprised when Lance asks to be paid. Poor Ronald, inhabiting fully his extreme fantasy that his love will save this poor victim, proposes that Lance move in with him, that they have a commitment ceremony and raise children together. The fulfillment of Ronald's need, of course, really has nothing to do with what Lance wants or needs. But Lance sees that the arrangement does seem to be a much better situation than the life he has with his pimp, Scar, so he agrees to the plan.

Although he's a prostitute, Lance is the innocent here, really, and he is no match for the scheming friends when their world becomes uncomfortable. I don't want to give away the finer points of the plot because surprise is important in how the play unfolds, so let's just say things take a rather appalling turn, and our laughter falls silent as grim choices are made.

Although far from being a truly serious-minded play, The Altruists has a thoughtful bit of heft to balance the extremes of its dark humor. Johnson has guided his fairly well-matched cast to create a delightfully well-put-together tale that moves smoothly as we are taken layer-by-layer down into this group's ugly world. Certainly Silver's characters are superficial, hypocritical narcissists rather than the caring, dedicated altruists they feel themselves to be, but his clever storytelling and great humor prompt us to embrace them in a wicked sort of way. These folks may be awful, but they're also awfully funny.

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