Theater: Sad Plus Funny Equals “Zero”

by Joe Brown

“In the midst of life we are in death,” says the Book of Common Prayer.

“I woke up early early this morning, and what did I see? The end of me, the end of me, the end of me,” is the way Himmer chooses to put it. The son of a poet, Himmer’s the sort-of hero in Harry Kondoleon’s “Zero Positive,” a very human comedy about awakening to and living with an awareness of one’s own mortality. In this case awareness is occasioned by testing positive for the AIDS virus.

“Zero Positive” is a comedy, and a very funny one, albeit one that might make you cry. Though Woolly Mammoth’s uneven production is somewhat less than “Zero” might be, it’s handled with the care and consideration the troupe always extends to its pet playwright.

It’s deep summer in the “United States of New York,” and in a sepulchral Upper West Side apartment, Himmer is sequestered with his father, Jacob Blank, who is still in shock over the death of his wife. He refuses to speak to Himmer, and fusses over his toy trains instead. But this doesn’t stop Himmer, who’s a virtual monologuist anyway, from talking. He’s visited by his friends Prentice and Samantha, and along with the latest dishy gossip Samantha has brought some news: Both she and Himmer have tested “seropositive” for HIV. Himmer immediately interprets this as “a death sentence” and tries to make sense of the term: “Zero positive? A zero for the infinite nothingness, and a plus sign like the cross on a grave.”

The characters spend an astonishing amount of time and energy in the first act on the fanatic avoidance and denial of the unwelcome topic. In fact, no one in the play says the word “AIDS.” The closest anyone gets is “you know what.” For all their incessantly clever chatter, it seems the world of Himmer and his friends has become a joyless city in ruins, a necropolis, where they are sentenced to live alone and unhappy, afraid to even try to touch. Sitting amid dusty piles of books in the apartment, each man and woman is indeed an island.

Himmer discovers an old play written by his late mother during her college days, and the story, if there is one, leads to an amateur production of her “The Ruins of Athens” in a hospital solarium, with the whole gang shanghaied into the cast. The road to “Athens” draws in Patrick, a chronically unemployed actor for whom every moment is a potential audition, and ditzy, ritzy Debbie Fine, who is looking for a purpose for her life and trust fund.

“Athens,” which is staged as the last act of “Zero,” is a brisk burlesque of Greek tragedy, and its inclusion turns the play into a postmodern parable on life and loss. Himmer, Samantha, Prentice and the rest of the “cast” are all souls living in limbo, hoping, waiting for “the fate machine,” the deus ex machina, praying that God, the president, someone, will reach down and do something.

While the first wave of plays in the AIDS literature was informational, getting the word out about the realities of the new plague, Kondoleon and other playwrights have necessarily moved on, and are now examining the social and personal issues raised by AIDS. Kondoleon is eloquent about grief, and he looks at how an awareness of one’s mortality, perhaps engendered by AIDS, might spur an inquiry into one’s life. Paradoxically, this awareness may bring a strange sense of liberation and clarity, as if taking leave of life may leave one free at last to look at it.

As always, Kondoleon keeps the ground shifting-laughter is disrupted by a shock of abrupt violence. This playwright loves the obscure and hates the obvious, and rather than driving yourself mad hunting for a conventional “plot,” it’s perhaps best to listen instead to the play’s extraordinary poetry of loss and longing. Prentice says he plans to get through the plague: “I’m a sane person-I’ll live without hope, expectations, joy, happiness, ecstasy.” But then he speaks of trying to live without love or hope in the age of AIDS. Losing yourself in your job works for a while, he says. “But of course, then, a snowfield enters you. . . . Midwestern, trackless, it goes on for days, it’s your state and you move around on it, bluish frosty. This is where I’ve arrived, you tell yourself. What a long way I’ve come since Miss Tulip said I was the sunniest boy in the third grade.”

Director Howard Shalwitz navigates this dense and difficult script, and is most successful in the crucial opening and closing scenes; those in between are unbalanced by overstated or unfocused performances. Shalwitz leaves us with quite a few memorable images, such as an indoor picnic threatened by imaginary rain and a toy train circling the safe, cozy little toy town at a scene’s fadeout.

Since his life has become a continual non sequitur, Himmer has made himself the master of perceptive nonsense, and Grover Gardner makes Himmer’s amazing verbal constructions sound almost natural, and his movement from panic to clarity quite affecting. It’s one of Gardner’s most charming and vulnerable performances. His fine work is matched by Jennifer Mendenhall’s admirable assurance as Samantha (and the fatally impatient Goddess of Battles All Lost in the “Athens” enactment).

Other performers stray from their marks more often. John Dow gives an uncertain characterization of Jacob Blank that errs on the side of cuteness. Ron Butler gives Prentice some amusingly effete touches, but the actor reacts with distracting over-emphasis to the slightest onstage goings-on. As Patrick, the career-obsessed actor, Rob Roy understands the character’s comic over-intensity but pushes too hard for laughs and spoils the horrifically funny effect intended. He recoups later, when dryly delivering Patrick’s spontaneous song, “Dr. Anger,” a deceptively slight ditty about the bitter frustration of a patient who knows that his doctor knows precious little more about his illness than he does.

A case might be made for a connection between “Zero Positive” and Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild,” currently extended at the Studio Theatre. Certainly neither playwright has built his reputation on optimism, but both of these recent plays leave us “laughing wild amid severest woe,” offering a tonic blast of laughter mixed with rage in the face of AIDS apathy. And both of these contemporaries offer a glimmer of compassion and hope, the awareness that though we are all most certainly alone, we can help by holding each other-and holding each other up.

Zero Positive, by Harry Kondoleon. Directed by Howard Shalwitz; setting, Kate Guenther; lighting, Tom F. Donahue; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan; sound, Neil McFadden; properties, Lee Mikeska. With Grover Gardner, John Dow, Jennifer Mendenhall, Ron Butler, Rob Roy, Grainne Cassidy. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through April 8.


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