* Vineyard Theatre, New York City * Written by Nicky Silver * Directed by David Warren

Nothing is sacred to Nicky Silver, the American theater’s one-man brat pack. He uses knowledge of the real world’s suffering and heartache to attack the shallowness of a culture epitomized by the energetic banality of *Seinfeld* -- and at the same time he employs the high-speed manipulation of comic stereotypes to poke fun at the very idea of taking anything seriously. Like the marriage of a people-pleaser and a misanthrope, it’s a closed system, which is the only appropriate environment for farce, which is the form of Silver’s plays.

His latest play, *The Altruists*, tackles the passions and pretensions of Manhattan leftist do-gooders. Ronald, a gay male social worker who wants desperately to do good but finds poor people quite tedious, picks up a hustler and makes reforming the lad his mission in life. We know Ronald is political because he wears a T-shirt with a power-to-the-people fist design on it. His comrades-in-arms include Cybil, a nose-ringed lesbian who shouts “Fuck the pigs!” and seems to sleep exclusively with men, and Ethan, a shaggy Brit who goes to rallies mainly to pick up girls. Ronald’s sister Sydney, a soap opera actress who plays a character named Montana Beach, wastes no opportunity to disapprove of their slacker lives but winds up subsidizing their antics out of her weakness for Ethan’s faithless stud services. In return, she gets the whole gang to pin on Ronald’s hustler boyfriend an unfortunate little homicide she happens to commit.

Of course, these characters bear about as much relationship to real political activists as the characters on *General Hospital* do to real doctors and nurses. Silver’s play is a sort of free-floating tantrum thrown after getting one too many e-mails about saving National Public Radio or letters seeking funds to free Mumia Abu-Jamal or phone calls brow-beating playwrights into joining a picket line in front of a theater chanting and waving signs just like the foolish fundamentalists down the street.

*The Altruists*, which finished its limited run at the Vineyard Theater on April 8, isn’t serious enough to be labeled politically incorrect. If there’s anything subversive about the play, it’s that Silver assumes a world in which gays and lesbians are sufficiently ubiquitous and accepted that they have enterted the pantheon of comic types to be made fun of, alongside ethnic taxi drivers and Jewish next-door neighbors.

If you tried to play *The Altruists* with an ounce of realism, it would be ghastly. Silver’s longtime designated director David Warren properly stages it in the classic style of *Pee-Wee’s Playhouse*: bright colors, fast pace, and plenty of juvenile exuberance. The actors have a ball, none more so than Veanne Cox as the anorexic actress who gets to shout her long diatribes while wearing a Jackie Susann-pink pants suit. She’s a tempest in a toothpick.

Speaking of memorably over-the-top performances in plays that satirize Manhattan liberals, Linda Lavin is currently bringing down the house in Charles Busch’s *The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife*, which has been extended at Manhattan Theatre Club. An ambitious breakthrough for Busch as a playwright and much more nuanced than *The Altruists*, the play shares with Silver’s play a crucial moment of homosexual panic on the part of its leading lady. But nothing tops the ferociously hilarious scene in which Lavin’s depressed intellectual installs herself at her husband’s laptop and declares, “I’m going to go on the World Wide Web and find someone in cyberspace to *kill my mother*!”

The Advocate, April 25, 2000

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