Give Them Shelter

A crude symmetry informs Robert Hooker's decision to produce Sex Drugs Rock & Roll right now, when his theater, the Sol Theatre Project, is doomed. It has maybe two more shows in it, and then Hooker and his partner will pack up and move to the Carolinas. Sol Theatre shall be sold — a prospect that leaves local theater people wondering who, exactly, is worthy of the hyperfunky digs into which so many have invested their imaginations, sweat, and cash over the past decade. After all, this is a theater with a pot-smoking Mona Lisa in the lobby. Those few who could produce good plays in such an environment are not the same few who could afford to buy it.

This is the reason for SDR&R's strange symmetry. It is perhaps the last production in which the boys of the Sol shall share a stage, and the title is the best single-phrase description of Sol's contribution to South Florida high culture. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll are three things that SoFla theater desperately needs more of and that most theaters simply cannot credibly deliver. But they come naturally to Sol.

SDR&R is neither the best nor worst sexy, druggy, rockin' play ever to grace Sol's stage. It was written by Eric Bogosian, a writer with a real gift for dialect and no sense of when to shut up. He used to perform SDR&R as a one-man show, but here it's filled out with three stalwart of the Sol — Jeff Holmes, Jim Gibbons, and Todd Bruno — who don't do anything to curb Bogosian's excesses. Indeed, excess has never been a bad word to Hooker and company. Bogosian's outlandish, almost childish yarns include one in which three friends consume eight ounces of weed, one ounce of cocaine, multiple cases of beer and champagne, and four bottles of Jack in a single evening. That seems over the top on the page, but the actors also Supersize those indulgences upon the stage. Bogosian might bludgeon you with a hammer; Homes, Gibbons, and Bruno will drop an Acme anvil on your head.

SDR&R is a series of nine monologues from nine unnamed characters. A few talk about sex; a few talk about drugs. None have much to say about rock 'n' roll, which is represented here more in form than in content. Their real subjects seem to be power and wealth. The play presents three poor men, three working-class men, and three rich men, and it'd be hard to watch SDR&R without attributing their differences at least partially to class.

Those differences are vast enough to keep an audience almost painfully off-balance. You can bust a nut laughing at Gibbons' English rock-star character in the monologue called "Benefit," in which he blithely plugs a benefit concert he's throwing for Amazonian Indians to whom he hopes to deliver vast shipments of iPods and Remington cigarettes. "The cigarette company has been really great," he says. "They donated a whole truckload of cigarettes!"

You can even be amused by the scene that follows called "Dirt," which finds a coprophobic Holmes riffing on the horrible impurities of the world's water. Laughter is safe here: Fear of water is comfortably crazy.

But what can be done about the scene that arrives ten minutes later in which Bruno tells a story about his good friend's stag party? This is the aforementioned scene involving the weed/cocaine/Jack Daniels binge. The story begins as funny as anything that came before, but then the litany of abuses Bruno committed against his own body become too extreme to giggle about. Really? An ounce of cocaine? He makes an admission: He says he had everything, including girls, beer, cocaine, clam dip, and potato chips — the ruffled kind. There's something disturbing about watching Bruno recount what is, in essence, a slo-mo suicide.

In the next scene, Holmes becomes a deranged homeless man worrying about how many recyclable bottles it takes to purchase life's necessities. He has pared down to an egg salad sandwich after deciding that coffee and cream are too expensive to worry about. By now, the show's previously good humor disappears.

I saw SDR&R on two consecutive nights. On the first, the audience was stillborn. The obviously funny lines were met with nervous titters, the actors' desperate hamming with silence. The quiet ripped the guts out of the comedy skits but lent the tragedies a weird gravitas — not pleasant, not necessarily good, but definitely heavy. There was the sense that the actors were walking some kind of gossamer-thin line between profundity and total dramatic collapse.

The next night was different. The audience was lively, laughing from the first, and the actors responded with verve and energy, hamming up the funny scenes so completely that, when the mood first changed, the audience was unwilling to stop laughing. Bruno was onstage at the moment, doing a routine called "Grace of God" that begins as comedy but quickly turns grim. Playing another homeless man trying to bilk the audience for its spare change, he starts out as a parody of homelessness and then comes to incarnate the real thing. The effect is to make the audience's loudest gigglers feel guilty for having giggled, but it didn't go so smoothly. As Bruno stood there, pathetic as a leper with his hands outstretched and an audience full of theater patrons laughing at his wretchedness, he seemed genuinely confused. Keep playing for the ready laughs or go for the scripted pathos?

There was a second of ambiguity when it could have gone either way, and then his eyes welled up and he began tearing at his shirt. "I'm sorry my clothes are dirty!" he shrieked, in a hideous voice that shocked the mirthful unto silence. We didn't know what to make of him after that.