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Theatre in Review: I of the Storm (The Gym at Judson)

Richard Hoehler. Photo: Michael Abrams.

The man known only as RJ in RJ Bartholomew's solo piece tells us that he was once vice president of a major brokerage, but, having spent "two beltless years upstate for 'money crimes'," he is now homeless, having been "literally and unceremoniously kicked to the curb. From Madison Avenue to milk crate, the St. Regis to St. Agnes, gruyere to go'ment cheese." As dressed by David Withrow, he sports a brown three-piece suit that has seen better days, his shirt turned oyster white with age and food stains, his shoes scuffed beyond repair. You'd think that, having fallen from such a height, a little dejection might be in order; instead, he pronounces the morning sky "awesome" and launches into "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." He is surely the happiest homeless person in the five boroughs.

Indeed, RJ is almost elfin, a veritable leprechaun among those living rough. "I apologize for my unkemptidity," he says. "Shelter's closed and surf's up on everybody's couches these days." Tucking into a panini slipped to him by the waiter of a local meatless restaurant, he adds, "I know. A homeless vegetarian. What next? A teetotaling sommelier? A Luddite IT guy?" This cues a chorus of Lionel Bart's "Food, Glorious Food." He executes a little buck-and-wing just for the pleasure of it. He does several minutes on food fads: "Back in the eighties everyone was going out for 'pesto' like on a hadj or a vision quest." And then there are his poems, written in a style best described as Walt Whitman meets Dr. Seuss, wedding transcendentalist emotions to doggerel rhymes. ("And so that's why I pray/in my own pagan way/give what I can/and reach out my hand/to whatever's above/and wherever the love/is coming from/just play it dumb/'cause I feel something there/something rare/in the breeze/and mountains and trees...") He insists that, all things considered, his current state isn't so bad, because now "I just say yes. To life, to change, to fear, to death."

This notion of homelessness as a kind of Zen retreat house would be offensive under any circumstances, but in a city where on seemingly every block there is someone suffering from addiction or mental illness, filthy and alone, it verges on the obscene. For all its jokes, puns, and snatches of songs, two-thirds of I of the Storm constitutes a sermon about the dangers of materialism, a TED talk delivered al fresco. While I have no doubt that this city is filled with people who have lost their spiritual way, the point is lost when the presentation is so deeply dishonest. The author introduces a bit of narrative in the latter portion, detailing RJ's friendship with Mars, who we are meant to accept as an adorable eccentric but whose behavior -- staging fainting scenes in art galleries, showing up on the set of a science-fiction picture wearing a homemade set of antennae -- sounds more like a cry for help. Of course, she has a Big Secret, revealed in a bid for audience tears.

Bartholomew is lucky to have the services of the actor Richard Hoehler, who, under the direction of Janice L. Goldberg, gives the text more authenticity than it deserves. He handles it expertly, shifting emotional gears with ease, seeming to believe every word he speaks. The climactic rant -- a run-on list of the world's ills, contained on index cards that are scattered, frantically around the stage -- must be a punishing experience for the actor, as he has to maintain a manic intensity with hardly a chance to breathe -- and yet he completes the race, barely appearing winded. He clearly deserves much better roles than this.

The rest of the production package is thoroughly slick. Mark Symczak's set design, amended by Brian Dudkiewicz, features a trio of attractive abstract paintings with flooring in the same style. Michael Abrams' lighting reshapes the open space as necessary, changing angles and palettes with each new mood. Craig Lenti's sound design is especially fluent, beginning with the opening montage and deploying a cascade of effects that includes birds in flight, salsa music, police sirens, fireworks, thunder, and game show-style music and applause.

"All I know is that it doesn't matter anymore if I have what I want, only that I want what I have," RJ says near the end. Well, that's nice for him, but it doesn't give Bartholomew the right to gloss over one of the terrible social crises of our day in his search for pop-psychology definitions of contentment. I of the Storm is a thoroughly professional piece of work -- as professional as it is mendacious. -- David Barbour

(16 October 2017)

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