BY DAVID KENNERLEY / As you enter the tiny Paradise Factory Theatre to see “Accidentally, Like a Martyr,” you may think, for a brief moment, that you’ve made a wrong turn and ended up in a gay dive bar. That’s because the performance space has been transformed into a convincing facsimile of a decrepit watering hole, complete with moldy disco music. And those shadowy male figures conversing and sipping drinks? They’re actors.
If you are reminded of the Boiler Room, the longtime East Village favorite just a block away, it’s no accident. That’s one of the unassuming old-school haunts that inspired Grant James Varjas, a member of the Tectonic Theater Company, to write the play.
The multi-talented Varjas, who also directs and appears in the drama, is fascinated by the myriad roles that such pubs have played in the gay community — meeting place, safe haven, pick-up joint, drug den, therapist couch, and even surrogate home for marginalized guys who don’t fit in with their biological families. He also recognizes that these functions are in flux, with each generation staking different claims.
Bubbling beneath the surface is a toxic question that’s never overtly spoken: In the face of competition from the ultra-hip, pricey lounges and newfangled, high-tech modes of meeting, is it nearly last call for the good ol’ no-frills gay bar?
The awkwardly titled “Accidentally, Like a Martyr,” which takes place in an unnamed bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on December 22, alternating between 2007 and 2011, explores this idea by contrasting characters of various stripes, focusing on the loves and losses of men “of a certain age.” Naturally, setting the action around Christmastime ramps up the pathos.
At first, we think Edmund (Chuck Blasius), the 50-something author who specializes in gay fiction –– based on Edmund White, perhaps? –– represents the old guard. When Jeffrey (Brett Douglas), a bartender in his mid-30s who calls everyone “Sweetie,” wishes they had a DJ like the new cocktail lounge around the corner, Edmund shudders, preferring the jukebox stocked with disco classics.
But the real granddaddy is 61-year old Charles (Keith McDermott), a belligerent coot whose drink of choice is a Grasshopper. There’s also Brendan (Varjas), the unlucky-in-love druggie who makes way too many trips to the bathroom.
Conflicts arise when a newcomer named Mark (Cameron Pow) enters looking for a guy he met online, disrupting the catty camaraderie among the regulars. Later, we discover he has a tragic connection to the bar.
It’s amusing to witness the changes over four years. The beloved jukebox is replaced by a gizmo that accesses tunes from the Internet. Edmund has renounced his desperate, drunken ways. The unhinged Brendan is headed in the other direction — he lost his job and is in danger of losing his friends.
Special mention goes to Clifton Chadick for his evocative set design of the aging and ageless dive. The fading but still vibrant collage of magazine images on the wall chronicles gay history. Amongst the beefcake shots, rainbow flags, Human Rights Campaign equality signs, and Tom of Finland hunks are icons like Oscar Wilde and Marilyn Monroe.
You’ve got to admire Varjas (“33 To Nothing”) for tackling such a tricky subject while wearing three hats. His gritty coke-fiend portrayal is disturbingly spot-on, and he elicits fine performances from much of the cast. As the aging denizens with no other family to call their own, Blasius and McDermott (who played opposite Richard Burton in the original Broadway production of “Equus”) are superb.
McDermott has some of the sharpest lines, and he makes them sting: “We, as gay men, after reaching a certain age, are completely erased from the culture. Neutered, at best; rendered completely invisible, at worst. And by our own kind.”
Edmund, no spring chicken himself, can’t resist labeling his colleague a “BOMAB” (bitter old man at bar).
While “Accidentally, Like a Martyr” delivers a number of affecting moments, there are some false notes and missed opportunities. Mark’s embarrassment about meeting a guy online seems positively quaint. The fact that he actually goes to hook up at a bar without getting the guy’s name, cell number, or face pic is simply too ludicrous to let slide.
I kept hoping that those “tank-top clad, Cosmopolitan-swilling teenyboppers” they refer to would wander in by mistake so we could see some real fireworks.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the current trend of guys in bars pecking away on their cell phones, obsessed with the murky promise of “next” and ignoring the “now,” is a subject ripe for commentary. In a contemporary work that examines the ever-changing ways gay men relate to one other, the failure to mention texting or social networking apps like Grindr or Scruff feels a tad out of touch.
ACCIDENTALLY, LIKE A MARTYR
Paradise Factory Theatre
Through Jan. 8
64 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave.
Mon. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.