Friday, June 3, 2011

The Vagrant

Here's another review of mine in the Post, for Dangerous Theatre's 'The Vagrant.' Full text follows below.

"The Vagrant" is an unusual play about a homeless man, played by Winter Maza, who chooses to live on the streets. (Provided by Dangerous Theatre)

Despite some clunkiness here and there--a couple of the smaller roles were played by people who seemed to have very little experience, or at least to have been given poor direction--it was a truly moving show. I'm always fascinated by playwrights and screenwriters and authors who can make you feel without seeming manipulative. There are far too many films and plays that prey on your emotions rather than bring them out honestly. I'm hard-pressed right now to define the difference; it's one of those 'I know it when I see it things.'

But in any case, 'The Vagrant' connected without being cloying.

3 stars
running time 1:32

If you still don’t believe reports that the decelerating engine of American Empire is forcing people out of their houses, drive down Park Avenue West past the shelters sometime. Just a few blocks from Coors Field, that towering edifice of triumphal capitalism, you will see fifty, perhaps a hundred people spilling out into the street every evening as they queue up just hoping for a chance to sleep inside.

But that crowd is more than a faceless, amorphous blob. It is a demographic composed of individuals who have stories very much like our own. They have parents and siblings and sons and daughters; very likely, they once had a roof over their heads too.

And while there are complicated and overlapping issues coloring any honest discussion of homelessness--mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, perpetual funding shortfalls--perhaps the most maddening of all is our lack of empathy toward those whom we as a society have deemed invisible.

Dangerous Theatre’s show “The Vagrant” seeks to address this, to re-humanize the problem of homelessness.

Enter Lenny, played by Winter Maza. He appears to be a jolly street-philosopher, taking homelessness as a sort of carnival act, cadging lunch from hapless hot dog man Rodney (Steve Towbin) through his gift of gab.

Soon we meet Lenny’s friend Maggie (Winnie Wenglewick), a grumpy, bag-toting sort who is perhaps not so high-functioning as Lenny. He reminds her to take her heart medicine, and gently pulls her back to reality when she rants about Shriners being aliens in disguise.

In an jarring moment during her entrance, Maggie turns the tables on the audience: she stares out hard and tells Lenny, “The bastards are back again, looking at you with their beady little eyes.”

It’s discomfiting to be among those on display, to have the luxury of privacy revoked even for a few seconds--a luxury the homeless never enjoy.

Lenny is soon visited at his park bench by John (Alexander Wu) and Rachel (Norrell Moore) a pair of young, struggling stockbrokers. When Lenny offers them a few stock tips resulting in better-than-expected gains, the pair are intrigued by this enigmatic man and drawn in different ways into his story.

Rachel is the personification of the argument against helping any individual homeless person: the problem is too great; I have my own problems, etc. She embodies unabashed selfishness, the dimwitted Randian mantra that greed is the only possible good, or even the only possibility for human behavior at all.

But Moore also manages to show us another, nastier component of this argument: there is an unspoken assumption buried within this philosophy that anyone less fortunate than ourselves probably only got what they deserved. Moore shows tremendous poise and grace as she plays out these multiple yet intersecting levels, which, in a less-skilled actor’s hands, could easily be shrill or overly simplistic.

Alexander Wu as John is the kinder, gentler counter to Rachel’s heartlessness, reaching out to Lenny and showing a compassion that is rare when the more fortunate are forced to deal with the homeless face to face. Wu infuses John with a bemused warmth, an instinctively human desire to help, to understand.

At the heart of the story though is Lenny, played by Winter Maza. His sonorous baritone voice calmly cuts through others’ self-delusions; he alternately laughs and cries, feels sorry for himself and empathizes with others. He cajoles, entreats, and raves. It is a beautiful performance marred only by rare occasions when actor momentarily seems disconnected from character.

Despite some supporting characters that are clunky at best and a couple of odd directorial choices, this is a moving, honest show that pulls at one’s emotions without being cloying or overly manipulative.

It may be an old saw that we’re all just two paychecks away from joining the ranks of the homeless, but in these times it might behoove us to remember that they are people too, flawed, fallible, imperfect people--just like us.

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