He who laughs last laughs best—especially when you overcome an addiction to methamphetamine. So, after recovery, what do you do next? (And I don’t mean Disneyland.) You turn pain into gain. You write and act out Methtacular!, a strategically comic postcard from the edge. In a manic, memorable 90 minutes, thirtysomething Steven Strafford brings charm, wit, and searing details to his survivor’s saga of a three-year “Ice-bound” servitude to Tina. A chemical from hell became an instant obsession that dogged his days from 2000 to 2003 in the sexual wilds of Chicago. His coming of age was a trip through hell—and Strafford has the passport to prove it.
About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere is a toxic tonic and a comic cure.
Sharply shaped by Adam Fitzgerald and embellished with a telling video backdrop, Methtacular! is a laugh-laden look at loss. A kind of whistling in the dark, it’s energized by peppy songs and showbiz moxie. Strafford is nothing if not gay in every way, an irrepressible entertainer who can turn a malady into a game show called “What’s My Meth,” complete with audience members challenged to guess what’s meth, myth, and math.
Whenever the chronicle gets graphic, Broadway-baby Strafford is ready with a saving torch song sung in a shower or a peppy rouser full of pizzazz and denial. Finally and happily, there’s a valedictory: a beautiful ballad, “Bringing down the House of Pain,” that mercifully delivers a kind of redemption.
Tangents aside, the thrust in this ugly odyssey is the 22-year-old Strafford succumbing to the twin temptations of sex and drugs, with the latter urge far stronger. One date with the wrong user tweaks him into paradise: He discovers a high where everything feels possible. “There is nothing wrong with me.” Delusions of grandeur and a pointlessly energetic, unstoppable wakefulness beat “meth mouth,” a shrunken penis, and mood swings galore. His desire to prolong that pleasure wrecks every waking hour. It turns this twentynothing into a predictably criminal combo of addict-liar-thief; faithful to nothing but shooting or snorting—losing both weight and his mind.
Strafford generously shares searing memories of his warped relationship with enabler Tony, a fellow-methhead, trolling for the next fix, indulging in phone sex, then just sex; “partying” at the Southern Decadence orgies in New Orleans; stalking bathhouses for guys who will give him money to keep his buzz. Sleeping is just an interruption between hits. Sex becomes Strafford’s way to say “Thank you,” “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “Do what you want.” He can’t even manage one step, let alone twelve. A recreational death seems the rock-bottom he awaits.
Strafford’s awakening from his neurotoxin begins when he realizes that Ed, the drug dealer with whom he shacks up, is more in love with his older pal Larry than with the goodtime guy who’s stealing his stuff when Strafford’s not missing rehearsals and performances in unnamed Chicago theaters. It’s now that his New Jersey mother’s appeals to come home and get clean ring true (feelingly rendered by Mrs. Strafford in moving video confessions).
Regrettably, exactly how Steven gets well and breaks free of this skin-wrecking, tooth-pulling, soul-shattering crystal killer is left for another show. (It’s a shame because for many in the audience that side of the story—coping with withdrawal and reality—will be as relevant and helpful as the excesses of addiction.) Anyway, this time when Steven says, “There’s nothing wrong with me,” it’s from gratitude, not euphoria.
Don’t worry. Methacular! is not a Debbie Downer and the exclamation point is well deserved. Sweetly smiling, geekily graceful, or impishly ingratiating, Strafford puts the performer over the victim. His adrenaline-surging stage style easily matches the giddy gallop of dancing with a disease. The audience gets a natural high from Strafford’s artificial alertness. When he comes down to earth, we’re there with him and for him.
About Face Theatre
in association with Justin Brill
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Wed-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 4:00
scheduled to end on September 28, 2014
for tickets, call (773) 975-8150
or visit www.aboufacetheatre.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater,