Lawrence Steger

at Club Lower Links

Worn Grooves, Lawrence Steger’s new solo work, is as intelligent, thoughtful, and expertly executed a performance piece as I have seen. And it simply shines in the intimacy and comfort of Club Lower Links; it’s as if the piece were tailor-made for this venue.

Steger’s last full-length solo work, Rented Movies, used the metaphor of a tired comedy routine to examine the loneliness of a certain “underground” gay scene. In Worn Grooves he builds on that theme by playfully postulating love as a rut. The metaphor is charmingly obvious in the opening moments of the piece, as Steger, dressed in white as a generic Arab and with generic Middle Eastern music droning in the background, recounts a story a friend told him “in strictest confidence” as if it were his own. It is the story of two men attempting tantric or spiritually based sex in the middle of the desert. But the men’s bodies simply refuse to cooperate. “We were sitting in almost lotus positions,” Steger says, and as passions flared, their bodies “became one much more quickly than expected.” The entire escapade is farcically clunky, ending with an obscenely nonchalant “Can I get you a towel?” The only thing the storyteller can really remember is the image of the grooves worn into the sand dunes all around them. These grooves form a pattern that weaves the men into a vast arid landscape, trapped perhaps in an endless barren beauty.

This section is made all the more captivating by Steger’s distanced delivery. On the surface his persona seems fully engaged with the story. He’s gone to the effort of putting on a ridiculous costume, choosing appropriate music, and standing under bright lights. But deep inside, carefully hidden from the watchful audience, lurks a debilitating exhaustion. This piece, the persona seems to be saying, is just another worn groove that cuts through his life, incapable of providing anything like genuine spiritual fulfillment. There is a huge emptiness at the center of this work, an emptiness that grows larger and larger as the evening progresses.

Steger charts this emptiness emotionally by moving his piece from being overdecorated to being stark in its simplicity. The Arab costume comes off–and is dropped casually into a garbage can–and Steger, now dressed in a black silk shirt and black trousers, performs a series of brief monologues, most of which relate to failed or impossible communication. For a brief moment he lip-synchs to something sung in German. Then he tells us about his “fine” relationship: “All we ever do in our relationship is argue, and all we ever argue about is our relationship.” This segues almost invisibly into half a conversation, as Steger says to no one, “No, it’s good to see you. . . . Really. . . . It is.”

These monologues are performed at various locations around the stage, making this section of the piece feel spread out, as if the images are coming from a variety of seemingly random sources. It’s as if the security and stability of the opening section is destroyed once the performer removes his costume, and so he must “run around” to keep away from the exhaustion that threatens to overwhelm. And just as the structure of the piece seems to loosen, the connections between the people in the stories dissipate. After hearing about the “fine” relationship, we hear about an “average man” with a “modicum of handsome features” whom Steger simply describes from a distance. We’re not even sure they ever meet. Finally we hear about two people talking about an “interest” but unable to understand why it’s interesting. This section is related entirely in sentence fragments and repeated phrases, as if the persona can hardly muster the energy to explain himself.

With language failing him, he resorts to reading tiny cue cards for his brilliant ending. Sitting isolated on a high stool and holding a Rolodex, he removes each card in turn and reads it. On the cards are written a series of responses, but to whom or what is left ambiguous. Most are spoken as if they were the final words of a lackluster sexual or romantic affair; “I truly love you,” “It was great,” “Mm-hmm,” and “Are you talking to me?” This section is unrelentingly funny and unrelentingly sad, as card after useless card is tossed into the garbage. Through it all the persona never lets his audience see any emotional response, but it is painfully clear as he drops the empty Rolodex into the trash just how weighty this section is for him.

The finality of the Rolodex clunking into the garbage can is nearly heartbreaking. Yet Steger’s work is not self-pitying in the slightest. His images are personal but wholly accessible. And he always maintains a sense of humor, allowing his audience to laugh gently at moments that seem all too familiar.

Worn Grooves contains hardly a wasted moment and no unnecessary adornment. Perhaps most impressive is Steger’s ability to create a piece that is at once briskly paced and contemplative. This 40-minute piece seems half as long, yet it feels complete.

Steger’s skill, both as a performer and writer, has increased immeasurably since his last work. He has clearly found a unique voice in performance, one that is powerfully expressive, even when words fail.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra E. Levie.