Volume 77 / Number 50 - May 14 - 20, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Dumped by his lover and his agent on the same day, Steve (David Grimm) wallows in misery and writers block until a suprise visit from the ghost of Idi Amin, the murderous ex-dictator of Uganda.
Terror and tough love Depressed playwright haunted by the ghost of Idi Amin
STEVE & IDI Written by David Grimm
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Through May 24
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place
$40 adults, $20 students/seniors
By Jennifer DeMeritt
How do you write and star in a play about self-indulgence being guilty of self-indulgence? In Steve & Idi, David Grimm gooses the story of a playwrights nervous breakdown with the ghost of Idi Amin, the murderous ex-dictator of Uganda. When Stevedumped by his lover and his agent on the same day, wallowing in misery and writers blockattempts suicide, Idi bursts through Steves picture window, steals his donuts, ties him to his desk, and orders Steve at gunpoint to write a play about him in three days. Terror and tough love ensue.
The title Steve & Idi, which references the 1960s lounge singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, smacks of comedy, and Idis invasion of Steves apartment is certainly played for laughs, but Grimms play hints at more serious questions: Is Idi Amin a bona-fide ghost or Steves hallucination, and what does this say about perception versus reality? Grimm also toys with issues of power, morality, and letting go. Yet the characters discussing these topics are insane, stoned, or imaginary, making it difficult to tell if one should take Steves dilemmas seriously, or dismiss them as narcissistic whining. Perhaps thats Grimms goalto create a hall of mirrors where the absurd looks solemn and vice versabut he attains that objective with uneven success.
The play begins with Steves descent from malaise to misery, charted in lugubrious detail from his wretched, solitary New Years Eve, his bickering writing group, and his double helping of rejection from agent and lover. His hookup with the sexy, spandex underpants-wearing Brad (Michael Busillo) briefly lights up the gloom, but Steve finds even this slice of heaven in hot pants unsatisfyinga sure sign hes fallen off the deep end.
The fun starts when Idi materializes and despotizes Steve (played by Grimm). His Excellency Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada has no patience for Steves sniveling. Played as a gleeful bully by Evan Parke, Idi fills the stage and receives huge laughs with politically incorrectand highly inflammatory personalinsults.
This is great comedy, but its the closest Idi comes to actual sadism while onstage. No menacing cruelty lurks behind Idis jolly grina glaring omission for a character who, in reality, was responsible for the deaths of half a million people, dismembered one of his four wives, and was probably demented from syphilis. Most of Idis insults to Steve contain kernels of wholesome tough love: Forget the ex, appreciate life, meet that deadline. If Idi lost the gun and the gay bashing, he could be mistaken for Oprah Winfrey.
One wonders then why this de-fanged Idi Amin haunts this particular playwright. Presumably for the pun in the title, but good dramaturgy demands a deeper justification. Idi addresses this with the declaration I am your oppositea dead man who wants to be alive, and his omnipotence serves as a foil, and a cure, for Steves impotence. But these facile opposites could apply to any powerful dead man, and they disregard the real Idi Amins despicable character.
When Steve confronts Idi about his brutality, Idi rationalizes it as a sacrifice for the love of his country. Grimm draws thematic parallels between Idis bloody will to power and the massacre in Steves personal life (Steve beats up his new lover and alienates his best friends), but the comparison trivializes Idis misdeeds without illuminating Steves. Grimm attempts to resolve this contradiction with speeches about the amorality of power and the subjectivity of perception, but they come across as glib and sophomoric, not profound.
The philosophical subtext of Steve & Idi would matter less if it succeeded as pure comedyand in some instances it does, brilliantly. In one sublimely sick scene, Idi talks about sewing his dismembered wifes body back together, and Steve, sleep-deprived and slap-happy, starts singing Patsy Clines I Fall to Pieces. They perform a duetjust like Steve and Eydie!and for a few minutes the comedy is as dark and disturbing as its subject matter.
In another hilarious moment, Steves friend Max says, Actors are hookers who are paid to talk. Its ironic that Grimm wrote this line, since better acting could give Steve & Idi the juice to move beyond sincere dramedy to high camp. A more flamboyant lead could make Steves orgy of self-pity into ridiculous, outrageous fun. As the star of his own play, Grimm cant get enough perspective, and his earnest, brittle portrayal invites the audience to identify with Steve, not satirize him. Yet satire is what this character deserves, since only a deluded narcissist would compare his inner demons to Idi Amin.