The ailment: general anxiety, moderate to severe depression and trauma stemming from a childhood of living with Asperger’s syndrome. Alex Grayson’s home remedy: endless scrolling through one’s Facebook feed, a dozen cups of coffee each day and leaving one’s apartment only when the craving for alcohol really kicks in. Mr Grayson, played by Nick Roy, is in his final year of college and his prospects for the year and for what comes after leaving the safety of the education bubble look unequivocally dim. A manifestation of his inner consciousness, played by Shane Zimmerman, visits to reassure him that, essentially, the light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole. A record number of cliché phrases and sentiments are earnestly yet overly ambitiously utilized, such as: “It gets better” and “Just try harder” and “You have so much to live for.”
The problem with hearing these kinds of sayings, however good the intentions of the speaker, is that when you are trapped in the strangely seductive comforts of suicidal ideation these adages can prove detrimental. How does someone else really know that it’ll get better? Or that time will heal all wounds? For someone who’s experiencing deep depression or crippling anxiety, simply getting up out of bed in the morning and facing the daunting nature of passing an entire day’s worth of time without embarrassment or hurt or disappointment is terrifying enough to never trust in the universe’s mysterious workings again. Alex oscillates between wanting to completely give up and going through the motions of yet another day. His consciousness won’t let the impromptu therapy session with himself end until there is a promise to keep trying to put himself out into the world, as terrifying as that may be.
“Expression of the essence of humanity.”
The black-and-white binary way of thinking that often contributes to mental illness is the dominating force in the dialogue between Mr Roy’s corporeal Alex and Mr Zimmerman’s symbolic one. Thankfully, there is plenty of space on the stage for the grey area to come to the forefront. Alex’s memories are played out in vignettes on other parts of the stage with ensemble actors as a variety of other characters in his life and Bryant Jager plays the Alex of years’ past. If Mr Zimmerman’s persistently Panglossian Alex is the Jimmy Stewart of the thirties’ Capraesque comedies and Mr Roy’s perpetually brooding Alex is the Jimmy Stewart of the fifties’ Hitchcockian creep fests, then Mr Jager’s far more holistically complete Alex is the Jimmy Stewart of It’s a Wonderful Life: at times ready to end it all, at others forging through the deep darkness with a mere glimmer of hope.
The more this production deviated away from the dichotomy of its main plot, the more compelling it was to watch Alex’s story unfold. In particular, Mr Jager’s multi-faceted portrayal of the protagonist was thoroughly convincing. At the beginning, middle and end of the show Mr Jager’s Alex performs a self-written monologue and each manifestation of this text is nuanced but not arbitrarily so. There were certain moments where Mr Jager’s eyes glistened with seemingly all of humanity pushing to get past the exterior of cynicism, fear and shame that so often follows a person diagnosed with autism or a personality disorder or even a chronic disease. The expression of the essence of humanity (vulnerability, desire, dreams, ambition, faith, and taking the risk of offering your heart to a fellow person and acknowledging that though it can be trampled on or even kicked to the curb, perhaps this time around it will be placed in good, nurturing, and dependable hands) redeems otherwise concerning aspects of this production, a majority of them related to the script and the execution of the text.
First off, the playwright has indeed put himself out there with this artistic endeavour as he has called it “a semi-autobiographical play.” It is a feat to share something as personal as one’s past traumas, present dreams, and ambitions for the future. The playwright must be commended for being brave and speaking his truths, many of which are still uncomfortable for the general public to discuss, despite trendy awareness campaigns and other shallow societal attempts at “getting it.” It seems as though the first hurdle is breaking through the stigma, but the second and far more intimidating hurdle is for others to get down to the nitty gritty and directly face the more complicated, and thus less easily “solvable”, realities of daily depression, suicidal tendencies, and lifelong PTSD.
“The tendency towards generality creates a more and more impersonal fourth wall.”
However, as is often the case with art that aims to encompass so much with so little metaphorical set pieces on a literal stage (there is only one main character for an entire hour and a half) the tendency towards generality creates a more and more impersonal fourth wall. The less specific the playwright’s dialogue and the director’s choices with blocking, the less engaged the audience will be when watching progressively more overwhelming material. As an example, there is a scene where Mr Jager’s Alex is brutally bullied by three other kids his age. There’s name-calling, stomach-kicking and belt-whipping. But the actors who embodied the perpetrators conveyed little to no distinction from one another. They might as well have been the same person, just in three different bodies. Similarly, another flashback scene in a college classroom involves even more actors yet they all seem anonymous in their depiction of students bemoaning an assignment. Even a scene with Alex’s supposed best friend Henry, played by Travis Martin, involves the retelling of Facebook statuses that all appear arbitrary and thus unbelievable. When movies are mentioned the film titles are omitted. When listening to music is suggested as a way to unwind there’s no inclusion of band names or artists or even genre. When memory scenes of acting class are illustrated onstage the choice for material is as predictable as it gets: Shakespeare, Chekhov (strangely mispronounced, and it’s unclear whether that actor’s choice was intentional or, more concerningly, accidental) and O’Neill.
It is also difficult to grasp Alex’s likes and dislikes. It’s understood that he wants to become a writer but it’s ambiguous who his favourite authors or books are. When previous experiences volunteering at a soup kitchen are recalled, exactly what kinds of friendships were formed and with whom? The time period is completely up in the air which makes it possible that the intention behind this was to make this story as #relatable as possible. However, as a recent New York Times article so spectacularly delineated, relatability almost always comes at the expense of nuance, and a viewer or reader’s easy projection onto a work of art turns that project into an opportunity for selfie-like solipsism. The script came off as too generic and general to be relatable but, paradoxically, the most pertinent focus of the text was just a single character, ostensibly based on the playwright. There is a major disconnect here that lowers the possibility for empathy and catharsis, while simultaneously heightening the barrier to entry; the audience member finds it more difficult to suspend disbelief to buy the story. Would Alex, given his extreme social anxiety and paranoiac tendencies, not freak out just a tad bit more when a ghost of himself enters the room at the beginning of the play? When Alex’s former roommates complain of his transgressions, exactly what was said and what went down? Or is the audience expected to connect all of the dots and create their own adventures in their mind while watching what unfolds onstage? It would be great to see just exactly how Alex was able to adjust studying methods to help himself with testing and completing assignments. Though that may sound tedious, it’s exactly the kind of scenes that bad Hollywood movies and original Netflix films always skip, and that a certain kind of audience (read: neuro-typical and curious) is craving to see because it would be difficult, it would be real, and it could very well subvert many of our expectations so that we can prevent ourselves from making future assumptions about Asperger’s and autism.
“It’s corny but self aware.”
My favourite scene was, of course, a romantic one between Mr Jager’s Alex and his ex-girlfriend Kelly, played with charismatic confidence and an alluring adolescence by Emma Romeo. Finally, we hear music and receive a pop culture reference! Taylor Swift plays in the background and you’d have to have an icebox of a soul to not crack a smile at this blossoming of first love, beautifully executed in the simplest of ways. It’s corny but self-aware. The same thing could be said about a scene between Mr Jager’s Alex and a playwriting professor, played by Tony Bozanich, who urges his pupil to keep pursuing his talents and aspiring inclinations. Mr Bozanich, despite only having short, small scenes onstage, was seamless in his delivery and a delight to watch.
As a final thought, here are some other problematic myths that could perpetuate a perhaps dangerous way of thinking. I have written about some of this just last month, but some observations from last night’s performance do justify repeating:
- Though it gets a bad rap in society and in this particular performance, group therapy can absolutely save lives.
- Similarly, a certain social stigma still surrounds suicide watch. I would like to urge the reader to rethink this and instead consider suicide watch not as a defeat, but as an absolute triumph of a decision, should it ever feel necessary. There is often talk of “well, it could be worse… you could be on suicide watch” but not so much talk of “well, it could be worse… you could be in the hospital for your heart condition.” Yes, the experience can be debilitating and financially taxing, but if this resource is available to a person who feels as though it’s the last chance to keep on living, please do not feel shame for checking yourself in. The hospital staff are there to help you, not hurt you or judge you.
- Like the adjustment period for literally anything important, counselling and therapy takes weeks, months, even years before it may “feel right” or “feel like it’s working.” Be patient. Resist the urge to immediately give up and move on from something that, by its nature, takes considerable time to get used to and more vulnerably acquainted with.
- Not great advice for literally anyone: “try harder!” or “be more like your happier/more successful/more confident friend!” — because, you know, comparisons and expectations will destine you to a lifetime of envy and disappointment.
- Not at all a groundbreaking point to make when denouncing the church/God/spiritual belief/any kind of organized religion: “if God exists, why does bad shit happen all the time?” Again, that’s a black-and-white binary way of thinking. God may or may not have created the universe, but it’s always up to human decision on what unfolds during our time on planet earth. Take some accountability!
- Regarding writer’s block: write. Down. ANYTHING! You don’t even have to save it or show it to anyone afterwards; if you’re in pain especially, whether it be physical or emotional, then get those muscles working and just write. Start a brand new project with no expectations or goals. Just write. Journal. Let yourself be seen, be heard, be validated by your own doing.
- Social media, like alcohol and caffeine, is a depressant. When feeling low, log off.
A Therapy Session with Myself will be performed at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Chelsea, Manhattan (441 W 26th Street), as part of the New York Theatre Festival’s 2019 New York Winterfest. Tickets are available for purchase HERE at $24.80 each. Approximate running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Remaining show dates: Wednesday, January 16th @ 6:15pm // Saturday, January 19th @ 3:30pm
Cast: Nick Roy, Shane Zimmerman, Bryant Jager, Emma Romeo, Louise Heller, Tony Bozanich, Travis Martin, Nathan Cusson, Aaron Algren, Rosie Coursey, and Lizzy Moreno. Written and produced by Anthony J. Piccione. Directed by Holly Payne-Strange, with assistance by Andres Gallardo Bustillo.
Image: Anthony J. Piccione