33 To Nothing
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 25, 2007
Growing up is hard to do, especially for Gray, the protagonist of Grant James Varjas's terrific new play with music, 33 to Nothing. Stuck in the kind of squalid, starving artist lifestyle one might associate with someone ten years younger, Gray is a 33-year-old alcoholic whose boyfriend has recently dumped him and who is one eviction notice away from homelessness. He's also the front man and lead songwriter for an East Village rock band whose wave may have already crested.
Occurring in real time, 33 to Nothing covers a rehearsal of Gray's volatile band, which may be on its last legs. You see, Gray's ex, Bri, is also the lead guitarist, and the newest batch of songs are about their breakup (Bri gets increasingly exasperated about this). Rhythm guitarist Tyler used to co-write the songs with Gray, and used to be his best friend, as well. But, their partnership/friendship has soured since Tyler's marriage to bassist Alex: Gray feels betrayed by their rapid turn towards suburban domesticity (they have "day jobs," and want to move to New Jersey), while Tyler and Alex are fed up with his juvenile devotion to rock 'n' roll at the expense of everything else. Rounding out the mise-en-scene is Barry, the simple, good-natured drummer who is totally whipped by his offstage girlfriend (she texts and calls him all throughout rehearsal).
33 to Nothing isn't a musical, per se, but there's a lot of music in it—nearly ten songs that exemplify the kind of catharsis that rock music does better than any other kind. Varjas's songs (two of which are co-written by fellow castmates Preston Clarke and John Good) are designed to function as true rock songs instead of musical theatre songs: i.e., they're geared more towards emotional release than advancing the plot. This turns out to be an asset for both the characters and the production, allowing the band to vent and cleanse the tensions that build throughout their rehearsal. In one such instance, Bri shares the vocals with Gray on one of the songs about their breakup because he's "a little uncomfortable with how I came off." Later on, when Gray explains that the way he knows best to communicate is through music, Alex baits him by saying that if he wants to communicate with her he has to actually talk to her. Within moments, he's communicating alright, by taunting her with the refrain from their next song: "Can you hear me now?!"
The play's docudrama-type feel is another part of its charm and effectiveness, and also what keeps it from veering totally into musical theatre-land. As written by Varjas and directed by Randal Myler, there are no breaks for the audience to applaud after the songs: the band just launches into their next discussion topic. This could be anything from Tyler's accusation that Gray prefers to do covers of gay songwriters to haggling over how fast to play. Sometimes it includes challenging Gray (who nurses a bottle of vodka throughout the show) about his drinking. Other times, teasing Barry about his girlfriend by singing the Kiss song, "Beth" ("Beth, I hear you callin' / But I can't come home right now").
At the heart of 33 to Nothing, however, is Gray, a thirtysomething malcontent who has let the pain and disappointments of life get to him. Sure, he turns them into great songs (the set list is almost exclusively mid-tempo and ballads: Gray doesn't write uptempo anymore), but does he have what it takes to grow up and join the human race?
Varjas's script presents the band's internal strife in convincing fashion, and Myler's direction accentuates its strengths. The performances are equally good, with Varjas leading the way as Gray. The tender yet combative dynamic he has with Clarke (as Bri) forms the poignant heart of the show. Good and Amanda Gruss provide a strong counterpoint as the two resident skeptics, Tyler and Alex, and Ken Forman brings up the rear as Barry with much-needed comic relief. All five actors are outstanding, and as a band they sound great together.
So, like I said, growing up is hard to do, and 33 to Nothing presents both sides of that quandary—those who have already done so, and those who have yet to—in a very touching and believable way. The collision of youthful dreams and adult pragmatism may come as a shock to this ragtag group of musicians, but it's a stimulating bounty for theatergoers.