Hope Is the Saddest
If there’s any justice in the world, then pretty soon timeless dramatic quotables like "My kingdom for a horse," "Attention must be paid" and "the kindness of strangers," will be joined by the line, "I had sex with a half-conscious woman who thought I was Jesus."
Before Harold Bloom and his ilk have the chance to explicate it for us, however, audiences will be able to witness the line in context in the new(ish) play "Hope is the Saddest." Spoken by a gay male character fending off the attentions of another woman, the half-conscious/Jesus gem punctuates only one of many memorable moments the Australian company Mythophobic has on tap.
There is a bonafide hit over at La Mama right now, and all it really needs are a few full houses to get the point across. The play actually deserves standing-room-only crowds if that’s not being too blunt about it. It premiered in 2007, and has played at fringe festivals around the world since. Now it’s our turn, and there really is little hope indeed for anyone who chooses to miss it.
Naturally, incorporating Jesus, sexuality, La Mama, the Fringe and half- (as well as a little stream-of-) consciousness into a play that doesn’t even fully capitalize its own emotional barbell of a title, can easily fall a mere avant-garde clown nose short of cruel and unusual punishment. And after reading the program notes, which are a little too precious, and seeing the first monologue delivered by the cast in unison, you can forgive yourself for immediately wondering what war they’re protesting or which denomination screwed them up.
Bear with it. This part is over soon, and is merely the mildly stubborn lid to what is probably the most potent theatrical nectar you’ll find in New York this week. And the fact is that monologue really does serve a purpose.
The characters, Hope, Theo and Marion, meet when one of them plows over another in a hit-and-run. Hope emerges as the good Samaritan and promptly removes the victim Theo to her home for nursing.
We learn a lot about her. And you’ll learn a lot about Dolly Parton. Hope’s obsession with the country music star is apparent by a life-sized cutout proudly displayed in her dingy, Fringe-y kitchen. Had it been Dolly beneath the car, this could have become "Misery" with a twang.
As played by Michelle Robin Anderson, Hope comes at us with no pretensions, no protections, and addresses the audience as if an extremely earnest Julie Hagerty had something really, really important to tell us. Anderson sticks to this choice and makes it work. Hope’s name is no accident, and even before her friendship with the openly gay Theo begins to blossom, she is yearning for something more.
Her machinations are as endearing, inventive and hilarious as they are, well, hopeless. It’s impossible not to be stirred a little by Anderson’s performance, not because you expect or even want Hope to succeed in converting Theo (she’s into Dolly Parton, remember, not Anita Bryant) but because of the way she’s willing to convert herself in order to appeal to him. This is an equally inadvisable path, but if the notion of hope were susceptible to advice, people wouldn’t have any.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler, who also wrote and directs the piece, navigates Theo somewhere between the worlds of discovery and deadpan. He could effortlessly pass for a hipster or denizen of the LES, a young scruff who kind of woke up today on a couch/bench in Williamsburg/Union Square. He’s full of rather predictable philosophies about death and ideas for machines that could make the Internet resemble a See ’n Say if he’d stop smoking pot long enough to learn something about physics.
But he evolves as the play progresses, and a character who might otherwise dance on the cliff of the audience’s patience manages to stay on the safe side of the guardrails. He’s a nice kid, really, who doesn’t run screaming from Hope’s advances, and doesn’t use them to take advantage of her either.
The character most detached from reality, in a pretty strong field, is the guilty driver Marion, played by Natalie Holmwood in an absolutely addictive performance. She has a flawless command of the part and could make anything seem funny. The role provides a terrific second layer to the plot, and it interweaves ingeniously with the overall narrative.
Of course, Marion also provides the substance behind Theo’s line about Jesus and sex and the half-conscious woman. Given Theo’s homosexuality and rejection of Hope, this development is not without contrivance, and perhaps even controversy depending on how political you want to be about someone else’s sex life. But the payoff is worth far more than any nitpicking.
It’s a pretty perfect example of an ensemble human comedy. And I haven’t even mentioned the really good stuff yet.
"Hope is the Saddest," part of the 16th annual New York Fringe Festival, runs through August 24 at La Mama, 74 East 4th Street in Manhattan. For tickets and info call 866-468-7619 or visit www.fringenyc.org.