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The Catalyst Theater’s opening of Nicky Silver’s The Altruists took place on stormy night — a perfect backdrop since Silver’s ferocious wit comes fast and furious like the summer winds as he turns his critical eye towards the rank hypocrisy of professional rioters. In doing so, he serves up one of his most riotous comedies in years.
Silver gets things off to a fine neurotic start by introducing us to Ronald (Jesse Terrill), a nebbishy gay Jewish social worker who has unexpectedly just gotten laid. So overcome with this turn of events is Ronald that he’s bought the china pattern and set the wedding date before even learning Lance’s (Scott Kerns) name or his profession, which turns out to be the oldest one around. Small wonder Ronald scored so quickly.
Meanwhile, Ronald’s sister Sydney (Ally Currin), a self-doubting, materialistic, shallow soap opera star awakens with her passed-out boyfriend, Ethan (Jason Lott), still beneath the covers. She begins lamenting how things turned so ugly and wrong in their relationship. It turns out Ethan is a blow-hard, anti-everything, protest-addicted underachiever with the stamina of a ten year old. Out comes a gun and the next thing you know, the despairing, hung-over Sydney’s fired a round into the body lying beside her.
Meanwhile, across town, in yet another bedroom, Cybill (Eva Silvetti), a lesbian who goes shopping for protests with the same verve as Sydney goes shopping for clothes, is finishing up her own naughty romp. Silver combines all the elements and pushes the comedy into manic overload.
Director Christopher Janson goes for the comic jugular by not even attempting to match Silver’s hyper-energy. Instead he approaches the material with a clear-eyed sanity and surprising sobriety. Directing Silver takes a strong will, and Jansen evokes from these actors the required over-the-top performances.
Sydney is the engine for much of Silver’s wit, yet Currin is able to steal much of Sydney away from the playwright’s grasp, which has devastating comic effect. With the roll of an eye, or a knowing sigh, Currin owns Sydney in a way that is almost impossible to imagine was in the script itself.
Just as Currin conveys Sydney’s shallowness, Terrill’s Ronald has the rare ring of truth when he comes to communicating the character’s neediness. Scott Kern’s Lance, Ronald’s pay-for-play boyfriend, is a fiery ball of energy. Kerns knows how to play coked up, and also knows when to come down to earth in one of the play’s most important understated moments.
Silver paints his characters with broad strokes, but compensates with a rowdy condemnation of bad people who drape themselves in the curtains of compassion. The Altruists is so refreshing because it’s willing to puncture the liberal orthodoxy of political correctness.
The only problem with Silver’s play is these liberal do-gooders are such awful people that it’s easy to lampoon their motives. A more mature take on the issue would be to satirize those shades of gray where it isn’t so easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. Until then, The Altruists is a smart, raucous step in the right direction.