Accidentally, Like a Martyr
Written and directed by Grant James Varjas
I wanted to see Accidentally, Like a Martyr, a new play by Grant James Varjas (through January 8), for one reason: Keith McDermott is in the ensemble cast. Anyone who has read Edmund White's various memoirs will know that McDermott played a key part in his hedonistic 1970s life in Manhattan. White and McDermott were roommates for a period, and they knew each other while McDermott was playing the lead role in Equus on Broadway opposite Richard Burton. The way White makes it sound, it was a very sexually charged period for both of them, and it stayed that way for them as roommates because McDermott insisted on keeping their relationship platonic, for the most part. For years now, from men who should know, I've heard that McDermott had only to show up at a party and it would stop dead just to gawk at his beauty. In recent years, McDermott has worked extensively with visionary theater-maker Robert Wilson, and he has also turned to writing. White isn't his only artistic love match, either; he was also involved with the extremely lovable artist Joe Brainard. Do yourself a favor and read McDermott's beautifully written tribute to Brainard and their relationship here.
I'm still not sure what the title Accidentally, Like a Martyr has to do with Varjas's pedestrian play, which takes place in a Lower East Side gay bar populated by some none-too-appealing and none-too-freshly conceived gay male characters. There is a plot, of sorts, but mainly there's an awful lot of arch, mediocre, aimless, witless banter, most of which, alas, it falls to McDermott to deliver, and he does his best, sitting at the end of the bar with his still perfectly-modeled head and what still qualifies as Major Hair. Toward the end of the play, he gets to deliver a short speech about staying true to the memory of your one true love, and he delivers it with clarity, but there's very little to be done with most of the dialogue here, which aims for laughs but gets nothing but silence and stifled groans from the audience.
There have been a lot of plays with gay themes this season, some of them ultra-fine, like Sons of the Prophet, some of them harmlessly amiable and vaguely titillating, like Wild Animals You Should Know at the Lucille Lortel. Accidentally, Like a Martyr, unfortunately, makes Wild Animals You Know, another gayish play with an awkward, obscure title, look like a model of a well-made, well-thought-out theater piece just by sorry comparison. A word should be said for Clifton Chadick's scenic design, which really does evoke certain Lower East Side bars, but otherwise, this is a total wash. The program notes that McDermott will soon be co-directing a play by Wilson, and that's a much more promising prospect than this play, where the only martyrs, accidental and otherwise, are likely to be the actors (aside from Varjas himself, who overplays one of his own roles), and the audience.
(Photo: Ahron R. Foster)