Oftentimes we are driven by ideals that we don’t believe in. We all know who we want to be and what we want to stand for, but we might forget why we wanted these things in the first place. “The Altruists” is a confrontation and a parody of this superficial way of living.
The play tells the story of young New Yorkers who devote themselves to liberalism and would probably write the word on their foreheads if they weren’t too drunk to do it. They chant, they rally for the sake of rallying and they smoke a lot of pot (sometimes while chanting and rallying). But of course, they need to do all of these things. They must drink and debate. Then, they must wake up with hangovers and protest for the Hispanic gays, the black lesbians and the rest of the disenfranchised. They must scream and shout against AIDS cutbacks, school cutbacks, arms funding, and this and that — I couldn’t keep track of their reasons for protest and sometimes they couldn’t remember them either.
“The Altruists” is a strong and playful performance achieved through the notable set designs of Autumn Von Plinsky ’13. The show opens with three separate apartments. Each apartment has a window with a skyline that reminds us that we are in the Big Apple. However, when it comes to this show, the city and its noise are mostly hushed. The skylines are painted in a fuzzy and monotone style, directing the focus instead on the stories that are about to unfold. The characters have lost themselves in their radical ideals and seem to fit right in at the rallies on the streets, but their phony ways are exposed behind closed doors. The rest of the set includes only a couple of chairs facing the audience. Overall, this aptly understated design, with minimal sound effects, creates an environment that is reminiscent of improv comedy shows. Wilfredo Ramos’s ’15 directorial choices create a cohesive story: the characters freeze like mannequins as the play moves from one apartment to another. Then, as we focus on the conversations between characters, we see all the different storylines come together.
Sydney (Leyla Levi ’16) is a successful soap opera actress who leads a glamorous life. She has a designer apartment, a car, expensive clothing, loads of fan mail, and also a freeloading, radical liberal boyfriend named Ethan (Kenneth Fang ’14). He uses her money on booze and stink bombs, hosts parties in her apartment and introduces her as “just an actress.” But she loves him, she thinks. It’s no wonder that Sydney is constantly on the verge of a melodramatic monologue. Levi skillfully plays this neurotic girlfriend with her refined fidgeting, whiny voice and shrill cries. You will laugh, but you will also sympathize with her as she interacts with Ethan, of whom she has become tired over time. His sex-crazed behavior and condescending attitude are important aspects of his character, but they are overplayed. Perhaps an honest hug sans groping or a line in a less despairing tone would make Ethan a bit less dull as a character.
Ronald (Daniel Dangaran ’15) is a gay social worker looking for love or just another person he can save from suffering. He has devoted so much of his life to helping others that he has become a bit obsessed with changing lives (for good, of course). With a convincingly calm and endearing demeanor, Dangaran’s character is pivotal in the show’s moments of chaos. David Gore ’15 plays Lance, Ronald’s new lover, who is undecided about what he wants. Gore’s believably casual and cool character is a strong foil to boyish Ronald.
Finally, Cybil (Natalie Tai ’13) is a lesbian who frequently dallies with other men. When confronted with this contradiction by her peers, she says that she is, in fact, a lesbian, but only “politically.” Cybil further embodies the protest-crazy liberal and carries out an ongoing gag throughout the play as the funny, scatterbrained friend. However, Tai’s parody of a hypocritical liberal is also the most honest and shaming.
The mantra of these youngsters is “Fuck the pigs,” but they fail to realize that they have been a bit piggish themselves, only disguised as altruists. “The Altruists” is a comparative examination of our two selves: the real and the ideal.
The show will be playing through Jan. 28 at the Off-Broadway Theater.