There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
“He looks around, and Broadway is covered with fake pearls.” Simultaneously evocative and manipulative, that line and the scene it turns up in pretty much sum up the strengths and weaknesses of The Velocity of Gary* (*Not His Real Name), a one-man play that tracks a Lost Boy of a hustler through late-’80s Manhattan and through a lifetime of heartache, heartbreak, and hard-earned experience. By the end of its intermissionless two hours you’ll have to acknowledge a few moving moments—but you’ll have to wonder, too, why playwright James Still works so hard to guarantee that response instead of trusting the audience to come to him.
That pearls-in-the-gutter image, for instance: It describes the aftermath of an accident involving the title character, a New York taxi, and a teenage drag queen with a Patsy Cline fixation, and it’s both a beautifully understated bit of prose and an awkward, maudlin moment that feels calculated to play on the audience’s sympathies.
What’s most disappointing about that feeling is that elsewhere, Still proves himself a genuine craftsman. He’s enough of an artist to open that same scene with an explosion of petulance from Gary, who always speaks of himself in the third person and who swears that “Gary is going to kill Kid Joey when he finds him.” Gary’s just blowing off steam, of course, because chirpy, quirky Kid Joey has absentmindedly let Gary’s dog run loose, but by the end of the scene Kid Joey is dead—and in an indirect, unexpected way, it’s Gary’s hardass pose, the unbreakable facade he tries so hard to keep up, that’s responsible. What makes that so heartbreaking despite the scene’s soap-opera obviousness is that, although Still’s hero is hardly the literary sort, Gary is unknowingly living a page from E.M. Forster: Velocity is the energetic chronicle of his halting attempts to “only connect” from behind that tough hipster mask.
“Gary never touches anyone—not anymore,” says actor Jeffrey Johnson, and characteristically, his reading of the line is just subtle and tender enough to underscore the double meaning on “touches” without descending to mawkishness. A little self-conscious in the play’s first brash moments, which require him to leap around Giorgios Tsappas’ techno-industrial set like a nonsinging refugee from Rent, Johnson nevertheless settles nicely into the character; by midway through, the actor has all but disappeared, and the audience has a chance to get to know (and like) Gary on his own terms.
Which are, essentially, that “anything can happen”—a phrase Gary repeats like a mantra. And most everything does: Fresh off the bus in Manhattan, Gary sells plasma for pinball money, flirts briefly with the notion that he’s a vampire, discovers a talent for phone sex and sidewalk hustling, cruises a memorial service for tricks (and kicks), and comes close to getting burned (literally) by the man he hooks up with there.
He even finds a great love—Gary calls him “Valentino,” though that’s not his real name, either—and when that love turns out to be attached to a coke-eating Catholic girlfriend named Mary Carmen, when that love turns out to be a casualty of the exploding AIDS epidemic, when that love leaves behind an infant along with a set of unshakable memories, that’s when Gary finally connects. Velocity is, in the end, a story about a naif who stumbles onto what he’s never quite known he wanted, and the descriptive imagination Still brings to the story’s off-kilter episodes is just enough to balance the shamelessly old-fashioned romanticism he threads through the script.
The writing is deft, keenly observant: Gary picks his pseudonym because “Gary” struck him as “somebody who could wear a letter jacket in high school…would part his hair on the side and chew Dentyne with his mouth closed. Somebody named Gary would wear penny loafers, and go to the trouble each year of putting in a new penny. Somebody named Gary could get away with singing in the school chorus and still drink beer at parties when somebody’s parents were out of town….
Somebody named Gary teaches aerobics—using Christian music.”
There are plenty of those easy laughs—”It wasn’t the first time Gary had confused sincerity with bad taste,” the narrator says at one point—but the fact that he’s talking about a pair of leopard-print underwear and a request for a table-dance lends a little extra punch to the line. And there is easy sentimentality: “Other people’s loneliness had become the answer to Gary’s prayers; finally, he’d been rescued from the lost and found.”
But there is also Still’s unfailingly immediate, richly colorful sense of place, and there is the powerful effect of a stylishly designed, smartly directed production. In one beautifully conceived moment, Gary remembers a visit to Valentino’s hospital room, cataloging the indignities of disease in a quiet tone that gradually becomes lost in the mournful polyphony of an a cappella boys’ choir.
A few minutes later, a solo treble underscores another introspective scene, and though the script speaks of a church and a boys’ choir, the music is Handel’s solo aria “Lascia Chio Pianga,” or “Let Me Weep No More.” It’s not quite profound; it may not even be especially meaningful. But it’s a rather nice grace note, intentional or not, in a rather nice play about a Lost Boy who manages, without ever quite knowing how, to find himself. CP