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‘Accidentally, Like a Martyr’ at A Red Orchid: Stranger walks into gay bar, and tragedy follows

Submitted by on Jan 23, 2015 – 7:02 pm

Bar tender Jeffrey (Dominique Worsley, right) and customers in 'Accidentally, Like a Martyr' at A Red Orchid. (Michael Brosilow)Review: “Accidentally, Like a Martyr” by Grant James Varjas, at A Red Orchid Theatre; extended through March 15. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Many adjectives tumble to mind in my fingers-over-the-keyboard wait for one that might sum up Grant James Varjas’ play “Accidentally, Like a Martyr,” a sleeper of a smash at A Red Orchid Theatre. The descriptive finalists: Brilliant, enthralling, magical, cool. 

Edmund (Troy West) brings a philosophical calm to the conversation. (Michael Brosilow)It’s the best show I’ve seen in Chicago this season, and frankly I can’t wait to see it again.

Varjas’ play is about love and loss, loneliness and despair and hope. It’s about a bunch of gay guys who gravitate to an out-of-the-way bar on Manhattan’s lower east side where they can drink a lot, commiserate, look for answers to half-formed questions. It’s about the human condition.

The intriguing title comes from a country-blues song from the 1970s written by Warren William Zevon. Its painful refrain hangs silently over the denizens of this little watering hole:

We made mad love, shadow love
Random love and abandoned love
Accidentally like a martyr
The hurt gets worse
And the heart gets harder

Directed with an impeccable touch by Shade Murray, A Red Orchid’s production boasts a near-perfect ensemble performance by the five actors at the story’s core: four characters in search of meaning and a bar tender who serves in the multiple capacities native to that profession – confessor, mediator, counselor, even referee.

The action toggles between scenes at the bar just before Christmas in 2005 and in the present. In the current picture, three regulars – the writer Edmund, the drug addict ex-cop Brendan, the aloof cynic Charles – are joined by a fresh-faced fourth, the buttoned-up thirtysomething Mark who’s making his debut here to hook up with someone he’s met online.

Charles (Doug Vickers) is the most astute of the bar flies. Just ask him. (Michael Brosilow)Beyond Varjas’ clever interweaving of story lines within that decade-wide frame, his characters are finely etched and his command of language stunning, the dialogue by turns lyrical and electric.

The two senior habitués of this emporium, novelist Edmund (Troy West) and intellectual provocateur Charles (Doug Vickers) see the world from opposite perspectives. Whereas Edmund brings a certain philosophical centeredness to the conversation, Charles amuses himself with high-flown condescension and an air of dogged negativity. Vickers’ weary, pompous old misanthrope is dryly funny but also quite sad.

As the fallen cop and coke head Brendan, Layne Manzer brings a maniacal anxiety to the mix. Brendan is broke, desperate, constantly craving another hit. He is a lost creature without options, but he has a history and it matters.

The den mother to this motley cub pack is Jeffrey the bar tender – Dominique Worsley in a performance of appealing affection for his customers.

On a night like any other, in walks a beautiful young newbie, Mark. Marvelous, mysterious Mark. What we are about to witness is a theatrical tour de force by Steve Haggard, as this prim, silent, delectable interloper is plied with booze and progressively opens up – metaphorically removing his jacket and sweater – to acknowledge his reason for being there and to confess the misery behind his former calm.

When cute newbie Mark (Steve Haggard) walks into the bar, all eyes are on him. (Michael Brosilow)From Mark’s initial reticence to his eruption into well-lubricated petulance, Haggard rules the stage. It’s the performance of a master comedian in a smartly calculated admixture of drollery and physicality. But as Mark begins to pick up on narrative threads among his new pals, the commedia spins toward the tragic. I couldn’t help thinking of Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh.” The coolest guy in the room is about to implode.

A great portion of credit for A Red Orchid’s splendid work here must go to the triumvirate of John Holt for the authentically detailed bar he has crammed into this tiny performing space, Rachel K. Levy’s dramatic and often surprising lighting scheme and Brando Triantafillou’s evocative, shifting ambient sound.

“Accidentally, Like a Martyr” is scheduled to run through March 1. I suspect it will be extended. But I wouldn’t wait to find out. This elegant and affecting play is nourishment for serious theater buffs, and no one of that ilk should miss it.

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