The Altruists, Boxer Rebellion Theater, and The Altruists, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company. Nicky Silver’s satirical look at the subculture of professional activism, now being offered in two productions, seems especially painful in light of recent political developments. Just what we need: a play that sets up a clique of crypto-rich kids as poster children for the American left, then exposes them for the hypocrites they are. As with the election, I still can’t decide what’s worse–the implicit affirmation of conservative cant, or that it’s all for the sake of a glorified sitcom. In any case, The Altruists is overwritten and tamer than it thinks.
Silver does have a sharp eye and is clearly familiar with the antiestablishment poseur type; his high-definition grotesques make a focus on surface the obvious production strategy. Boxer Rebellion takes this tack, with Jennifer Willison leading the way: her portrayal of pill-addled soap star Sydney is breezy shallowness personified, especially in a tour-de-force opening monologue. Andy Rabensteine’s officious social worker, Blaine Vedros’s picket-line rock star, and Michael McEvoy’s credulous hustler are likewise polished comic creations who hit every line. Stephen Rader’s vigorous direction is matched by Sara Walsh’s crisp treatment of a three-tier set for the play’s simultaneous settings. But what might have made a ripping half hour gets real old at three times that; most of the “black humor” is stock mistaken-identity shtick, and the script’s “social commentary” is largely a sham.
Mary-Arrchie’s production is scrappier. Director Jonathan Berry has a better feel for punk poverty than Rader but does worse with the brittle, mannered dialogue. Similarly, his cast has an emotional edge Rader’s doesn’t but can’t compete with the Boxer crew’s characterizations or handling of the ornately empty comic bits. Set designer Nathan Combs is hard-pressed to visually separate the play’s settings but makes up in realistic clutter what he lacks in space.
In their own ways both are strong shows, but Silver’s endless TV-inspired crosscutting slowly destroys their momentum. And if Boxer Rebellion’s is more commendable in most respects, when it comes to the pacing nightmare of the denouement–which any real sitcom writer would get fired for–Mary-Arrchie’s raw approach at least feels briefer.