Road Movie

Great Jones Theatre Company and Starving Artists

at Bailiwick Arts Center

Viper’s Opium

Great Jones Theatre Company and Starving Artists

at Bailiwick Arts Center

By Jack Helbig

“Man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.” The worst thing about this line from the Book of Job is that it’s true. Thrown into the world, we age, we ache, we die. Worse yet, we outlive friends and neighbors and family. At which point we can run away, numb our bodies with food and alcohol, sedate our brains with drugs and TV (the preferred resort of our culture), or stare straight at what’s on the end of our fork, accept the world as it is, sigh, and move on.

This dilemma–flee or face the world–lies at the center of two plays by Godfrey Hamilton currently running in repertory, productions of the newly formed Great Jones Theatre Company and Starving Artists. Both plays concern lonely, wounded gay men slowly (or not so slowly) drinking and drugging themselves to death. And both plays pay special attention to the road to salvation each man follows, the characters he meets, the memories he grapples with, the aspects of his life he tosses away, and the aspects he embraces as he confronts who he’s been and who he’s becoming.

It’s not hard to see why Matt Tauber was taken with these plays when he saw them performed last year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, or why he brought them to Chicago as the inaugural productions for his new theater company. The questions raised in Road Movie and Viper’s Opium are the very ones raised in the three-part epic American Divine, which Tauber coproduced and codirected last season in collaboration with playwright Joe Pintauro and Dolphinback Theatre: How should you live your life? How do you maintain integrity? How do you achieve coherence and grace in a crazy, spiritually bankrupt era?

As in Pintauro’s plays, AIDS is one of the triggers for Hamilton’s existential crises: in Viper’s Opium the protagonist is HIV positive; in Road Movie the hero is haunted by the memories of many friends lost to AIDS. But Hamilton never allows AIDS to become the be-all and end-all of the play, any more than he allows his plays to be just about characters dealing with chemical addictions, though almost all of them are drunks or druggies or both.

Hamilton is after something much more sophisticated than socially redeeming melodrama. He wants to create solid, believable, messy characters who sometimes manage to salvage a spiritual insight or two from the muck of their lives.

In Road Movie Hamilton gives us Joel, an alcoholic New York publicist whose addiction has become so bad he frequently wakes up in strange cities in strange men’s beds. Having met the man of his dreams on one of these benders, Joel flees him when things get a little serious, then sets out on a cross-country trip to Sausalito, back into his lover’s arms.

As in all picaresque stories, the trip is as important as the goal. Joel meets one intriguing person after another on the road–a mother who lost her son to AIDS, another who lost her daughter to drug addiction, a spaced-out California chick–and these encounters both force him to confront his long-repressed sorrow about friends lost to AIDS and deepen his understanding of his own life.

This kind of story can come off as a bad Hope-Crosby picture, but Hamilton has actor Mark Pinkosh to bring his words to life. Pinkosh and Hamilton have been a writing-performing team since 1988, and the closeness of the collaboration shows. As a writer, Hamilton sometimes dances perilously close to cliche, but Pinkosh imbues every character with such vivid originality that he redeems even the stalest bits. When he plays that hoary San Francisco stereotype of the totally flipped out, bean-sprout-poisoned girl, Pinkosh emphasizes her vulnerability; in his hands Dharma seems so lightweight (both literally and figuratively) that she’s always in danger of floating off into the ionosphere. Even more impressive is the way he allows Joel to slowly grow over the course of the play from a neurotic, narcissistic basket case to someone who’s no longer hiding from the world and is able to love and be loved.

Hamilton charts this same journey from self-absorption to engagement with the world in Viper’s Opium, though with one significant difference: this time Pinkosh is joined by Heidi Ammon, who frees him to fully explore his character, another gay alcoholic.

Curtis is a much more intriguing character than Joel, in part because he’s so much more disturbed. At times he’s so out of touch with reality that we can’t decide if the stories he tells are memories or hallucinations. Yet Curtis also seems more spiritually evolved than Joel. He may be a psychic mess, but he’s also much more in touch with something holy and life-giving in the world, a quality heightened by the way Pinkosh plays him–all wide eyes and dancelike movements, many of them beginning or ending in a protective, fetuslike folding of his arms across his chest.

As in Road Movie, Pinkosh’s character would be nothing without a spiritual guide, in this case a flaky Good Samaritan named Cricket. In playing her, Ammon must convey two contradictory messages–that Cricket’s a healing earth mother and that she’s a dangerous, wounded child–something she does with admirable ease and skill. Even when she folds Curtis in her arms and comforts him, we know that she too is being redeemed.

Pinkosh and Ammon have a wonderful chemistry that helps transcend the play’s “fag hag meets gay boy; fag hag tries to seduce gay boy” story line, something I’m sure director Tauber deserves a lot of credit for. As he amply demonstrated with his direction of the “Spirit” segment of American Divine and his sublime version of Howard Korder’s Boys’ Life, Tauber really knows how to bring out the best in his actors, who never seem to turn it off when they’re onstage. Even when they’re just listening to someone else yammering on, they listen actively, devoting their full attention to the other actor–and their intense concentration draws us more fully into the play. From the moment Pinkosh and Ammon step onstage we care absolutely and completely what happens to them. The rest is gravy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Road Movie theater photo.