The Austerity of Hope
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 19, 2012
Dan Fingerman's new play The Austerity of Hope offers a smart, compelling, and moving look at the generation of gay men who came of age in the first decade of this century. It isn't in the least polemical or portentous: it tells an engaging story of four friends and their entanglements, love affairs, and careers, starting with the 2008 election (Obama's book gives the play its title) and concluding two years later with the world on the crest of uncertainty but—at least in terms of the progress of civil rights for gay Americans—also with a fair measure of hope.
Mike is a journalist who has recently become unemployed and now spends too much time on Facebook rather than writing something he can sell. Braydon is an underemployed actor/dancer from Alabama who is looking for a permanent relationship. Simon has an unfulfilling job and has heretofore shunned romance in favor of one-night stands; his buff good looks serve him in good stead on this account. And Claire—not gay, but a good friend of both Simon and Mike since college—is looking, possibly half-heartedly, for Mister Right, and also trying to figure out a next step for her career.
During the two turbulent years covered in the play, all four friends have to deal with unexpected developments in their lives. Mike's long-term boyfriend Jonathan—a writer who has become too comfortable in his job as a pharmaceuticals sales rep—balks when Mike suddenly brings up the idea of getting married. Braydon literally bumps into a guy named Scotty who could turn out to be the man of his dreams. Claire hears from an old friend who is earning big bucks teaching English in Korea. Kurt, Simon's casual sex buddy from the gym, is a married man.
I worry that I've already told you too much about the story; what's important to emphasize is that the friends give advice to each other and listen or don't listen the way that actual people do, which is to say that they DON'T behave like the shallow characters in a sitcom (and far too many contemporary plays). Fingerman gives us a tight group of people working hard to grow up, who really do care for one another even though personal baggage can sometimes get in the way. At the end of Act I, with the gang celebrating the election of Barack Obama, I was pretty much on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what would happen to each of these very interesting, very individual characters. And Act II does not disappoint.
The play is well directed by Dan Dinero, who has cast it superbly. Max Rhyser is perhaps the standout as Simon through sheer force of personality (and indeed Simon's storyline turns out to take the most unexpected turns). But he's well-matched by Kohler McKenzie as the closeted Kurt and Anni Weisband, who shows us both Claire's vulnerability and her strength. Anchoring the play is Micah Spayer's likable yet difficult Mike; he and Derrick Ledbetter, who plays Jonathan, have terrific chemistry and they're a couple to root for. Jacob Perkins is refreshing as the younger Braydon, and Lee Garrett hits the right notes as Scotty (though this role is the one that may suffer from being somewhat underwritten). Filling out the cast are Akeem Baisden Folkes, Todd Flaherty, Mat Leonard, and Emily Rieder. Dinero's design team does a fine job realizing the world of the play, particularly Liene Dobraja, whose costumes really help nail the personalities of each of the characters.
The Austerity of Hope is great theatrical storytelling and, in its excellent production values and its unwillingness to compromise in delineating its believable characters, an outstanding example of what's best about indie theater. Fingerman has more on his mind, though, than simply spinning a tale or two, and the play's election subtext portends a strong, insightful conclusion that really resonates. This is a play that I hope gets a long life beyond this engagement. It's also Fingerman's first work for the stage, and I am certainly eager to see whatever he comes up with next.