at N.A.M.E. Gallery
March 25 & 26
What can be more uncomfortable than sitting in a darkened theater, captive to the pathetic ramblings of a fourth-rate stand-up comic? Lawrence Steger, in his one-man performance piece, Rented Movies, intentionally places his audience in such a situation. But where Steger's rent-a-comic bombs, the piece succeeds. This is a tender and powerfully sad look at a gay man's attempt to find humor and affection in a world as indifferent and passionless as a cheap porno magazine.
Steger's comic can't even seem to get to the theater on time. The music starts and a spotlight hits stage left, announcing The Star's entrance. Then the music abruptly stops and the sound man, in the middle of a beer, shouts, "Are you ready, Larry?" From somewhere in the other room is heard, "Yeah, almost. I'm in the middle of a piss!" And things hardly get better. Once he finally makes it into the spotlight, dressed in a black tuxedo and wearing white face paint reminiscent of the emcee in Cabaret, he proceeds to tell a string of nonjokes. "I went down to the subway, and I went through the entrance/exit!" He stops and does a wide-eyed take to the audience, hoping to solicit riotous laughter. Instead he's met with dead silence.
The entertainer continues, although intermittently shaken by his audience's reserve. The single story that he tells, in the best/worst "the funniest thing happened to me on the way to the theater" tradition, is about picking up an anonymous man in a gay bar and engaging in a cheap sexual encounter in the back room. In telling this story, Steger stresses the utter vacuity of the participants. "He says to me, 'What do you do?'" Steger begins as he describes how the two men meet. "And I says, 'I do performance and construction work.' And he says, 'Oh.'" Nothing like delight or surprise could ever enter this world. But Steger is neither sensational nor irresponsible in his depiction of this sordid scene. He underscores the danger of such sexual behavior. While he dances quietly with a black cane, like an exhausted Fred Astaire, a classic 1920s voice is heard singing, "See what the boys in the back room are having / Give them the poison that they name . . . / Tell them I died of the same."
Steger was entirely captivating from start to finish, holding his overflow crowd in rapt silence, exuding that disturbingly decadent sexual energy associated with the Berlin club scene in the 20s and 30s. Yet it is difficult to determine exactly what held our attention, as the piece had some obvious weaknesses. Steger's verbal ability is not particularly strong, which could be detrimental to a piece built around story telling. Some of his acting is a bit stagy, especially when he attempts surprise at his audience's unwillingness to laugh. And a long sequence in the middle of the piece, in which he suddenly jumps up on a bar and begins to enumerate his frustrations with a superficial society, seems overly contrived, as if he were suddenly switching gears, trying to imbue this otherwise conversational piece with a heightened poetic language.
In a work entitled Rented Movies, we expect film to be important. And it's also during this middle section that Steger actually uses a movie. While he stands on the bar angrily lamenting our inauthentic culture, talking of masks and charades, a film of what looks like television static is projected onto him. This effect, although it does help to distinguish this rather lyrical passage from the rest of the piece, seems wasted. Since the film is largely decorative, merely throwing agitated speckles on the performer, any thematic or structural potential is left unexplored.
Yet despite its faults, Rented Movies held together remarkably well. Most striking about the piece was its exploitation of "routines." Not only does Steger perform a hackneyed comedy routine, he also delineates his central character's routine, melancholy existence. Making love is here akin to following instructions. The participants cannot see one another. They drop all pretense of sociability and act on brute instinct. This notion is elegantly evoked as Steger, who has exchanged his tux for a tough-guy leather jacket, hangs by his knees from the rafters. He describes the sexual act as a violent mutual murder. And once the act is finished, the participants move on as if nothing had happened, riding the endless subway that metaphorically runs throughout Rented Movies.
By the end of the piece, both routines--the comedy routine and the routine of daily life--have exhausted the performer. All pretense of theatrical excitement is gone, yet he must conclude his act by playing, of all things, the accordion, which has been sitting onstage throughout the evening. This final gesture--Steger accompanies on his lackluster, wheezy instrument Lou Reed's sardonic and downbeat "Perfect Day"--is at once hysterically funny and disarmingly sad. Here is the spent funnyman trying to complete his eminently unsuccessful act, merely going through the motions, unable to truly interest himself, let alone his audience. Steger, without sentimentality or arrogant posturing, delicately theatricalizes the emptiness of an "underground," gay life.
And it is important to stress the gay issues in Rented Movies. Steger has here created an avowedly homosexual work. He does not take the time to "explain" the gay themes running throughout it. They are the givens of the piece, growing out of and addressed to the gay community. He expects his audience to understand the many homosexual themes in Rented Movies, and if they don't, it is their loss. Steger is neither pandering to nor asking acceptance from a heterosexual audience. He is actively developing a gay aesthetic, a difficult, commendable task. Thank God for artists like Steger, committed enough to explore the concerns of a much-maligned subculture. I hope he makes his future work even more rigorous and demanding.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jin Lee.