Infectious Opportunity

We had a very successful play a few years ago called “Fleet Week, The Musical”. I’m gonna stand by that sentence, though almost every word can be questioned. But by our standard, a show that extends, a show that sells 1500 tickets, a show that is designed to elicit a response, and that response indeed happens, has to be called “very successful”.

So, how did it start? We’d been making a bunch of plays, plays we really loved. We had a show we thought would be perfect for the Fringe. We applied in 2004, and while we were on the road with a show, we learned that we’d been turned down. Our first response was “what the hell do they want? A big gay musical?” That turned into a shit-talking session, during which Mac was, unbeknownst to me, taking notes in the back of the van and, when Bush was re-elected that November, the play just came flying out of us.

When it closed, we had an incredible play, one of the best we thought we would ever do, to follow it. “Fleet Week” closed the beginning of September, our next show opened the third week in October and… nobody came.

“What the hell do they want”, I found myself saying. Followed closely by, “I won’t ever know. I just… I just won’t EVER know.”

I’ve touched on this before in talking about the brilliant “Glee Club”, but these ideas come to an amazing logical conclusion in James Comtois’ fantastic “Infectious Opportunity”. In the play, a young writer seems to have made a life for himself, despite living with AIDS, a story that would seem to have, at its center, a hero who can work outside the bounds of worrying about what the hell they might want. But, as we learn very early in the play, he’s a liar.

It isn’t that he’s lying about having AIDS. He *is* lying about that, sure, but that’s not nearly as interesting a thing to explore as what the rest of the play uncovers. For me, personally, we presented ourselves to the New York community as a company who wants to create big entertainment, large musicals for the older community to enjoy. The difference between us and the anti-hero of this play is that we had one moment of what I will generously call “misdirection”, and then we couldn’t keep it up. We went right back to producing strange, painful, funny and awkward straight plays.

The initial lie isn’t the most powerful moment in the play, most people going in know from the tagline that he’s lied about AIDS. What is breath-sucking is the small lies, the leverage that this guy has now that he’s invented this life for himself. This is a brilliant fable, this is an O. Henry story, but without a punchline, unless there’s a version that means “punched in the stomach.”

Let me say a few things about the actual production before I get too ahead of myself with the larger ideas. I know many of the actors from their work, and a couple of them I know as friends, so full caveats in effect… although I may stop writing that as it begins to be meaningless the longer we’re all in New York.

David Ian Lee gives simply the best, most measured and specific performance I’ve seen in his wonderful New York career. There is something, it seems, about this character that marries with David perfectly. He never knows himself, he inhabits every single moment without a bit of knowledge or a wink or an apology. He’s always a chainsaw of an actor, and at times his verisimilitude has given me a bit of vertigo, (in “Sleeper”, he had a scene where he was gagging and choking, and I damn near got out of my seat to heimlich him…) but here, it’s as if the chainsaw blade has been replaced with a diamond edge scalpel.

I have a tendency to disregard the scene-chewing roles (which this is not, by the way) because the more a playwright gives you to eat, the bigger bites you can take, and all of us love that. If David was playing a gun-wielding psycho, I’d figure he could really enjoy every second of it, but in this play, he has to commit to something so much worse. As an actor, each of us has to use whatever side of us is most attractive or most compelling in every situation, sometimes to a fault… and David is no exception, but this leads you to the gut-dropping realization that he’s playing a version of himself. This character is simply everything we’ve all done, but *one click worse*, and David creates him by making those terrible things one click *smaller*. It’s an astonishing performance, a revelation of his full talent.

Matthew Trumbull and Becky Comtois are both fantastic, and I simply can’t say anything more than that because they are both in our next play. It sucks. I want to tell you that I wanted to grab them both and gush afterwards, but it’s too self-serving. Maybe I’ll revisit their performances in September – or maybe when they remount, the same actors will be there, and I’ll get to slobber all over them.

The entire cast is great, but I thought Ronica Reddick, in a series of smaller parts, was also fantastic. If the scene chewers go home full every night, it’s the supporting players who go home finding nourishment in the little that they got to eat, and I was really captivated by Ronica every time she was on stage. I can’t wait to see her in a larger role.

I’ve been a fan of James’ writing for years now, and I thought that he had really reached a milestone with “The Adventures of Nervous Boy.” He creates an effect, regardless of the production, where you feel drenched in the world he’s giving you. I’ve said of my friend Mac that he doesn’t call you an asshole, he makes you realize you are an asshole, and James does the same thing with his plays. In “Nervous Boy”, he didn’t paint a portrait of disaffection, he painted a portrait of *us*, and we saw our own disaffected lives in it.

In “Infectious Opportunity”… I mean, I’ve seldom seen a play that felt so directly accusatory, and yet so directly forgiving of my life. When you watch the play, you *know* this guy, you recognize him from the moments in your own life. We do it all the time, your facebook update is designed to elicit a response, and very often it’s designed to excuse you from your responsibilities. Whether we’re being self-depricating, or bragging about our work ethic, or advertising our sleep schedules, we’re managing expectations.

So, why should we be shocked that a man tries to use his illness to negotiate a better salary. Or time-off. Why does it hit us as far more evil than a plot device like taking over the Nakatomi Building for a simple heist? It’s because James has drenched us with his play, so that we don’t have to be told we’re wet, we can feel the water. When we’re asked for change on the street, we shake our heads “Sorry, I don’t have any money”, and the guy next to you says, “oh, did you lose your job”… What if you said yes…

It’s the first lie, no matter how big, that creates the atmosphere. One you enter the world where the truth can be negotiated, once your life, and the people who expect you to do things with your life, can be managed, how much advantage would you take? And, really, what’s the difference between taking a small advantage, and making your entire existence a complete lie? It is a harrowing question.

I’m spending much of my days now working on marketing our upcoming show in the Fringe, and I find that if I simply say the first marketing thing that comes to mind, I will make myself sick. Our show talks some about viral videos of death, and I shudder when I think of recent events and possible tie-ins that floated into my mind and were then thrown out. Desperation, particularly when we aren’t totally convinced we live in a meritocracy, can bring out the very worst in us. But, as this play points out, horrible behavior, what some might describe as evil behavior, is only a shade or two darker than our own behavior. One small mistake, not made right, can turn a person into their worst self, and that, to me, is scarier than any horror movie.