Burbage Theatre Company’s production of Nicky Silver’s The Altruists is about a group of liberal activists who claim to care about women’s rights, gay rights, the plight of the homeless and other social issues, but are so self-centered and shallow they really seem incapable of doing anything. Director Vince Petronio says of the characters, “They represent those folks who are on board with protesting the BIG issues of the day, but can’t be bothered to see what’s around the corner from them.”
Sydney, a vain and extremely neurotic soap opera actress, shoots her lover Ethan (Patrick Keeffe) and turns to her brother Ronald for help. Ronald has his own problems. He has fallen in love with Lance (Courtney Stafford), a male prostitute who seems a bit dense. Meanwhile, Cybil (Paige Berry) is having problems with her girlfriend Audrey and goes on an anti-corporate rant.
The Altruists is almost redeemed by some fantastic performances. Petronio’s direction is solid and he gets the most from his cast. Valerie Westgate is truly hilarious as the troubled Sydney, who cares more about her possessions than people. Westgate has been terrific in other productions, but she rises to new heights here as a woman who seems to be teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown. Kevin Broccoli also displays some stellar comic timing as Ronald, a very needy and insecure man who is desperate to find love. The funniest moments in The Altruists feature Westgate and Broccoli, who have fantastic chemistry. They really sell these wild characters and are a joy to watch.
However, despite the efforts of the actors, the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. What message was Silver trying to convey here? That liberals are really self-absorbed shallow hypocrites? Petronio has his own interpretation. “Most of us willingly support the issues that have headlines in the paper when the person next door might need a supportive heart or hand. I think the play’s purpose is to awaken us to the potential for hypocrisy in helping others when we might be actually motivated by getting a reward from giving that help. The bigger the issue, the bigger the reward.”
As political commentary, The Altruists is alternately strident and muddled. Considering the bizarre times we’re living in, making fun of those who want to fight for the disenfranchised seems misguided. If you’re looking for some zaniness and campy humor, The Altruists delivers. Just don’t expect much more than that.
The Altruists runs through April 15. Burbage Theatre Company. Aurora, 276 Westminster St, PVD. Burbage Theatre.org.