Do what The Altruists say, not what they do. Master satirist Nicky Silver burrows into the noblest, most corruptible human aspirations and explodes their hypocrisy from the inside, raising hell and hilarity in a deft condemnation of walking, talking double standards. For this Magenta Giraffe Theatre production, the company makes a return visit to Detroit’s Furniture Factory space, where director Molly McMahon brings jackhammer intensity to a scathing comic indictment.
Although the play simultaneously exists in three New York City residences, set designer Adam Crinson keeps the floor plan open to avoid undue crowding in the Furniture Factory space. On an elevated platform is the chicly decorated apartment that soap opera star Sydney (Alysia Kolascz) opens to her lover; one side of the stage is dominated by lonely Ronald’s (Cal M. Schwartz) snug studio; and downstage is the domain of militant Cybil (Jill Dion) and her insistent squalor. With connections kept ambivalent at first, the play’s single rocketing act insidiously draws out how these arenas intersect. It’s a Sunday, which for one location means shouting at a still-sleeping form; for another, a morning-after meet and greet; and for the last, a scramble to prepare for this week’s protest, against…well, whatever it is this time, it’s certainly a good and righteous cause. Although the specific associations start loose and wind ever tighter, it’s clear early on that the characters operate in the same social orbit — they seem to be members of a group of perpetual agitators, taking up whatever causes allow them to act out on behalf of good and right.
Sound designer Frannie Shepherd-Bates generously comments on the group’s anarchic feel with a slew of hard-rocking blanket damn-the-man anthems, which taps directly into the play’s central conceit: questioning the merit of flaunted public declaration compared with private behavior, especially with a difference as stark as this. Lauren Montgomery’s costume design toys with the effort that goes into cultivating a persona, be it couture style or conspicuous tatter. The immeasurable absurdity gap between how excellent the altruists believe themselves to be and how repugnant they are as human beings proves a cascading source of ridiculous, caustic humor. The crew maintains their selfless image by eschewing employment and possessions; they keep alive and organized by mooching off of Sydney, who has ties to several members but has finally had enough of being disparaged for her lifestyle by the ingrates systematically destroying and looting her home. After a classic rant that serves as the last straw, Sydney commits a crime of passion; the gunshot practically doubles as a starter’s pistol, ramping up the spatial transitions and frantic farce as her actions radiate consequences throughout the group. Lighting design by Neil Koivu is an immense help in guiding this unraveling, cycling, whirling cyclone of simultaneous stories presented with whip-smart pacing and scorching energy.
The tinny echo of hypocrisy grows to booming resonance with performances that highlight the artificiality of mistaking self-satisfaction for selflessness. Kolascz’s proudly high-status drama queen brings inherent intelligence and practicality to a character that has by all rights earned her shallow materialism, particularly in her epic trilling monologue that doesn’t miss a note. The put-on lovey cuteness of Schwartz’s Ronald barely conceals his desperate subtext, in chirpy exclamations that sound suspiciously like someone who has found not love, but his next pet project. Cybil bristles with defensiveness as she insists on her lesbianism and authenticity, gathering nonconventional identities like items on some kind of anti-privilege scavenger hunt. Dion’s calling card in the role is hair-trigger acceleration from zero to oxygen-burning furor, whose humor subsides only in its lack of modulation. Jonathan Davidson crackles with magnetism as a man who looks only as far ahead as the next sex act; although his Ethan pays lip service to causes and egos, all the while, his glowering reaches majestic levels of indifference. Curiously, the most surprising of these broadly drawn sketches is also the most subdued: as the agreeable brick-stupid hooker, Richard Payton elevates and refines the humor of an easily manipulated sap who never met a synonym.
McMahon and company make The Altruists at home in Silver’s demented worldview that holds a funhouse mirror up to the fallacy of perpetual do-gooders. The play’s cynical condemnation finds safety in its extremity; viewers may academically identify personal duplicities reflected here, but to go so far as to be affronted by such overwrought reproductions would take some doing. This production doesn’t purport to sit in judgment, but reliably doles out more than enough rope for these paper-tiger champions of the oppressed to hang themselves, with viciously hysterical results.