In his review of Bill Clegg’s much-hyped book about his crack addiction, the New York Times’ David Carr (himself a recovering addict) wrote, "At bottom, why the addict does what he does is necessarily reductive: because he is an addict."
"Addiction’s primary aspect is boredom," he also noted. "The getting and using of the same substance over and over until death, jail or recovery intervenes." Since Steven Strafford’s one-man show "Methacular" arrives in New York (in a theater just off Times Square but definitely off-off-Broadway) in a highly polished production, with a keyboard accompanist and some rejiggered cabaret songs no less, it’s probably not giving away the ending to reveal that, since Strafford is obviously not dead and we’re not viewing this in a jail cell, he managed to find his way to recovery.
But Carr’s point is a good one that all addicts’ stories are essentially the same -- the relentless search for the gram, the next shot, the next pill. There’s a similar sameness in recovery as well.
That’s not to say that Strafford doesn’t present his own three-year journey down the rabbit hole of crystal meth addiction entertainingly. He mixes in business like the opening of one of those mid-’60s TV specials hosted by a starlet like Ann-Margret; a game show (complete with lightning round, and, the evening I saw the show, an audience contestant who stepped into her role so well it’s hard to believe she wasn’t a plant); and those songs.
He also likes to digress into trivia about TV shows like "The Facts of Life," in appropriately speed-rap delivery. Although he delivers his shaggy-dog excursions into pop culture with the same show-biz razzmatazz that he details his downward spiral into addiction, they really don’t add all that much to his personal narrative.
Likewise, despite his spilling out detail upon detail about the "boyfriends" he used for drug supplies or rent money, extended trips to the baths and the various lowlifes he met along the way down, Strafford’s musical-theater shtick (which, I thought borrowed heavily from the "Loveland" segment of "Follies") is an effective means of screening his inner feelings only up to a point. When he does drop the Broadway baby smile, he reveals the pathos and self-hatred that inevitably accompany serious addiction -- in those capable of such self-reflection, anyway.
Despite all the details, however, Strafford leaves gaping holes in his narrative. How did a struggling musical theater gypsy in Chicago manage to maintain the gigs he landed? Even though he lost them one by one, I can’t see how he could have sustained his voice, let alone the physical punishment that comes with musical staging?
How did Anthony, the GHB-crystal-cross abusing older gentleman who enabled the early stage of his addiction, manage to hold down the kind of job that pays for a luxury Riverside Drive apartment, let alone subsidizing Steven’s bills and rent on a second apartment while partying every weekend from Friday until well into Sunday night? Some few hardcore tina party boys may manage to be "functional addicts," but "Suicide Tuesday" is the inevitable comedown from that sustained high.
Although we meet Strafford’s long-suffering mom through a few brief video interludes, he doesn’t reveal anything about his upbringing. We only find out he comes from New Jersey nearly an hour into the show. He never mentions his father or pre-Chicago years. A brother is mentioned only in passing.
But the biggest problem with "Methtacular" occurs at the end. After giving us so much detail about his slide into destitution, homeless and becoming unemployable, he winds up his tale with a breezy aside about how he "went into therapy" after moving back to his mom’s house. Since this is suburban Jersey, where you can’t swing a cat without hitting a meth dealer, and New York City is a short bus ride away, we’re left wondering how he managed to avoid such temptations.
We do know he doesn’t go the usual route of AA, CA (the crystal version of Alcoholics Anonymous) or NA (ditto the more umbrella program for narcotics), because he gives us a one-sentence dismissal of an aging earth mother type who greets him at the door of his first and last 12-step meeting.
Understanding that he is speaking through the defenses of his character, I still found the cheap laugh at her expense to be flip, condescending and unfair: The whole point of AA and related programs is that participants suspend such judgments, since their addiction renders them all equal. Similarly, his extended monologue about a psychic he meets on a trip to New Orleans who effects his breakup with Anthony seems too pat.
Strafford does gives us a Rogue’s Gallery of colorful descriptions of fellow addicts he met along the way. But drug addiction by its nature attracts the marginal and mentally unstable. Meth in particular is a drug that fosters interactions. Because of the user’s insatiable need to have sex, it is more social than other drugs, such as heroin or even pot. (Strafford never explores the way people use crystal as a self-medicating drug, nearly as dangerous a property as its addictive powers.)
I wanted to like "Methtacular" because, heaven knows, we could use a powerful show about the plague of crystal meth addiction in the gay community. If Strafford continues to tweak (ouch!) his play, he might consider adding another actor and actress playing multiple roles to make it less like a monologue.
As it is, "Methtacular" will provide those struggling with tina addiction and those recovering from it a nice respite from their personal torments; as well as giving family, friends, counselors and caregivers insight into the ways this insidious drug plays havoc with the lives of far too many gay men.
As he continues to present (and, I presume, hone) his story, Strafford needs to tighten the narrative -- and, if anything, make it even more harrowing by presenting the very worst of what he must have experienced. But even given its limitations, Strafford is to be commended for taking some very rotten broken eggs and making an omelet.