Playwright/Composer: Grant James Varjas
At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: 312-943-8722; ARedOrchidTheatre.org; $30-$35. Runs through: May 27
On the heels of Steep Theatre's Birdland, A Red Orchid Theatre takes its own dive into the grungy waters of the rock-'n'-roll lifestyle. But unlike the narcissistic globetrotting star in Simon Stephens' drama, Grant James Varjas' 33 to Nothing focuses on a band confronting the reality of never hitting the big timeor even the medium time.
The premise is that we're seeing the nameless band during a practice session for an upcoming gig. But everything is just a little off, as the squabbles about the song tempos stand in for deeper disagreements and disappointments that take off in explosive directions over the 90-minute run.
The lead singer/songwriter/keyboardist, Gray ( Aaron Holland ), tosses back copious amounts of vodka and tosses acerbic barbs at his ex-lover and guitarist, Bri ( Steve Haggard ), about whom he's written ( and re-written ) several songs. The married couple of bassist Alex ( Annie Prichard ) and guitarist Tyler ( Amanda Raquel Martinez ), who were friends with Bri and Gray, respectively, before the band came together, deal with feeling shut out from the creative process and the lives of their old comrades. And the drummer, Barry ( Jeff Kurysz ), just wants to make it through the set while dealing with multiple calls from their girlfriend.
The story seems as familiar as a favorite pair of Converse All-Stars in the broad outlines. But somehow Tyrone Phillips' heart-on-sleeve, hard-rocking staging, with assists from musical director John Cicora ( the actors play the instruments ), feels fresh and honest. For starters, the gender and racial identities of the characters are simply presented as facets of who they are, not sources of conflict.
The conflicts that matter here are about heartbreak, betrayal and the sheer exhaustion of trying to play hard at night while working "real jobs" during the day.
It also helps that ( unlike in Birdland ) we actually hear several of the songs, also written by Varjas. And they're good. Maybe not insta-classic good, but definitely songs that would make you pay attention in a bar. We believe that this band could have broken throughif only they had caught the right breaks a few years earlier.
The dialogue blends big recriminations with the sort of goofy shorthand asides and gibes that longtime collaborators effortlessly use. ( In one hilarious moment, the band responds to Barry taking the umpteenth call from a girlfriend by crooning Kiss' "Beth." )
Holland's Gray is charismatic ( and aggravating ) as hell, but like the best lead singers, he's balanced by the rest of the ensemble. 33 to Nothing offers a defiant and sometimes sorrowful anthem in praise of finding your voice with people who know that the same old song still matters.