Volume 77 / Number 50 - May 14 - 20, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Sandra Coudert

Dumped by his lover and his agent on the same day, Steve (David Grimm) wallows in misery and writer’s 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

Written by David Grimm
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Through May 24
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place
$40 adults, $20 students/seniors
(212-627-2556; rattlestick.org)

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 playwright’s nervous breakdown with the ghost of Idi Amin, the murderous ex-dictator of Uganda. When Steve—dumped by his lover and his agent on the same day, wallowing in misery and writer’s block—attempts suicide, Idi bursts through Steve’s 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 Idi’s invasion of Steve’s apartment is certainly played for laughs, but Grimm’s play hints at more serious questions: Is Idi Amin a bona-fide ghost or Steve’s 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 Steve’s dilemmas seriously, or dismiss them as narcissistic whining. Perhaps that’s Grimm’s goal—to create a hall of mirrors where the absurd looks solemn and vice versa—but he attains that objective with uneven success.

The play begins with Steve’s descent from malaise to misery, charted in lugubrious detail from his wretched, solitary New Year’s 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 unsatisfying—a sure sign he’s 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 Steve’s sniveling. Played as a gleeful bully by Evan Parke, Idi fills the stage and receives huge laughs with politically incorrect—and highly inflammatory personal—insults.

This is great comedy, but it’s the closest Idi comes to actual sadism while onstage. No menacing cruelty lurks behind Idi’s jolly grin—a 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 Idi’s 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 opposite—a dead man who wants to be alive,” and his omnipotence serves as a foil, and a cure, for Steve’s impotence. But these facile opposites could apply to any powerful dead man, and they disregard the real Idi Amin’s 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 Idi’s bloody will to power and the massacre in Steve’s personal life (Steve beats up his new lover and alienates his best friends), but the comparison trivializes Idi’s misdeeds without illuminating Steve’s. 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 comedy—and in some instances it does, brilliantly. In one sublimely sick scene, Idi talks about sewing his dismembered wife’s body back together, and Steve, sleep-deprived and slap-happy, starts singing Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” They perform a duet—just like Steve and Eydie!—and for a few minutes the comedy is as dark and disturbing as its subject matter.

In another hilarious moment, Steve’s friend Max says, “Actors are hookers who are paid to talk.” It’s 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 Steve’s orgy of self-pity into ridiculous, outrageous fun. As the star of his own play, Grimm can’t 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.

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