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By Donald V. Calamia
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, an altruist is one who has an "unselfish concern for the needs and well-being of other people." In Nicky Silver's razor-sharp satire "The Altruists," a passionate band of idealistic, young protesters are indeed concerned about the welfare of others; it's the "unselfish" part they have problems with – as seen in Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company's very fine production at The Furniture Factory in Midtown Detroit.
Written more than a decade ago but reminiscent of today's Occupiers, "The Altruists" unfolds in three bedrooms scattered across New York City. It's Sunday, and yet another protest is on the agenda – although no one is quite sure what the subject-du-jour might be. Although each member of this motley bunch is dedicated and fully committed to a seemingly endless list of leftist causes – and will eagerly raise a picket sign or toss a fire bomb to show their solidarity with them – their moral centers are, shall we say, a bit squishy.
Ringleader Ronald (Cal M. Schwartz) is a gay social worker who falls instantly in love with whatever "fix-em-upper" comes into his life. Today it's a drug-fueled, mostly monosyllabic male prostitute, Lance (Richard Payton), who he picked up the night before. (He's already making their wedding plans.) His co-conspirators are the hunky, self-centered Ethan (Jonathan Davidson), who – despite his live-in arrangements with Ronald's sister, Sydney (Alysia Kolascz) – finds himself bedding many of the movement's female participants, including Cybil (Jill Dion), a not-very-committed lesbian in a rocky relationship with the much-feared (but never seen) Audrey.
Passions come to a head this particular morning when Sydney – an equally self-absorbed soap opera star – suffers an emotional meltdown over her relationship with Ethan. With Ronald's encouragement, Ethan and the other protesters have been using Sydney to fund their activities – by running up her credit card and stealing her precious belongings (and then selling them) – and Ethan's recent philandering is too much for her to accept. So in the midst of a heated, one-sided argument – Ethan is apparently sound asleep under the covers – Sydney pulls out a handgun and pops three bullets into her lover's backside.
And that's when the truth behind their morals comes squarely into play!
Without giving too much away, Director Molly McMahon has found all of the script's humor and pathos and balances the laughs and anguish with great skill. And she has also assembled a fine on-stage and behind-the-scenes ensemble who delivered a near-flawless performance on opening night.
Each of her actors creates a fully developed, passionate character. Schwartz's over-the-top, desperate-for-love performance is a scream, while the furry, tight-torsoed Davidson has all sorts of fun dancing around his character's moral compass. And Kolascz and Dion are both superb in delivering monologues that cover a wide range of human emotions. But by the end of the play, you can't help but feel sorry for Payton's Lance, the only character who makes a positive, life-affirming decision – and through no fault of his own, doesn't get to fulfill it.
All technical aspects serve the show quite well. Special recognition goes to Scenic Designer Adam Crinson for a set that was so realistically messy that my guest at the performance – a neat freak – was dying to walk onstage and tidy up a bit. (OK, a LOT, actually.)
So trust me: If there's a moral to Silver's story – and there is – the show's closing moments will make it totally clear. And that's the best compliment one can give to this very fine – and highly engaging – production.
SHOW DETAILS: Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company;s "The Altruists" continues at The Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St., Detroit, Friday-Saturday through May 26, plus Sunday, May 20. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets: $15-18. For information: 313-408-7269 or www.magentagiraffe.org.
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