33 to Nothing--a Sociological Theater Review
Grant James Varjas' new play, "33 to Nothing" is set in a rehearsal studio in Hoboken. Running through April (Bottle Factory Theater, 193 East 3rd), it explores the lifeworld of the rehearsal studio through musical performance and theater. We watch as an indie band disintegrates. Directed by John Good, the performance offers a snapshot of familiar cultural history to the millions of unsigned bands that erupted after punk liberated the means of production for the kids. Signed or unsigned, our musical tribes offer members a vision of possibility, a reason to live.
Through the social group known as the rock & roll band, aimless and shiftless spirits find focus and purpose. Like religion, this subcultural formation gives members hope, meaning something to believe in, and momentary transcendence from everyday misery. The "gigs" give the band's friends a scene, something to do. Music, status, fun, drinking and drugging, meaning, community, sexual opportunity and social mobility propel the band to labor on, even when the chance for commercial success is unlikely. In the warped-tour version of the American dream, some do make it, but most never break beyond the local.
With five bandmates holed up in a crusty studio for a rehearsal prior to the last show, "33 to Nothing" mixes interpersonal politics, sexual psychodrama, addiction and creativity in a setting that will be warmly familiar to anyone who's lived through this particular youthful rite of passage.
Varjas, who wrote the music and the play sounds a lot like Lou Reed. His lyrics tell us as much about the inner life of his singer-songrwriter character, Gray, and the band's interpersonal dynamics as the dialogue does. Typical of many emotionally stunted creatives, the singer-songwriter is unable to articulate or relate except through the music. Gray is a proud rock & roll queer, a slacker and a fuck up, unemployed, alcoholic, and effectively homeless, currently living in the studio. Bitter and needy, he rides earnest and indulgent former lover and bandmate Brian (Preston Clarke). Brian is present emotionally, Gray is in the same room but miles away; he mourns his mother's recent suffering and death, and hoses his bandmates with humorous contempt for the hetero-monotonous mainstream, exemplified by his best friend and guitarist, Tyler, now married to Alex,the band's self-confident post-riot grrrl bass player.
We know these people very well---five bandmates, factions, sexual intrigues, betrayals, lies, unforgiven woundings, ripoffs, and the de rigeur collective dumping on the clueless drummer. Death is coming in for the band; Brian has a new lover, Alex and Tyler have had enough---for them, slumming is over. They're quitting the bend, fed up with Gray's alcoholic bullshit, Alex confronts him that it's time to "grow up". Time to move from bohemia to Montclair, NJ to start a family. Marriage and domesticity have long been blamed for band-break-ups ever since Yoko entered the sacred boyz club--the Beatles recording studio. But this is as much about class as it is about gender.
For Alex especially, domesticity is a safer bet than artlife; stability, and responsibility-- "growing up"---means becoming middle class. Adulthood means conformity and mainstreaming. For Gray, rock & roll is for life. It's not a bourgeoisie rite of passage, or a transitional stage of development in the life course, it's art, and it's forever.
"33 to Normal" ends with Gray bottoming out--he's lost his lover, his mother, his home and his band. But he still has the music. Onstage for the last show, it's the end of an era. But for Gray, music is neither a hobby, a rite of passage or a way to avoid the day shift, it's the life force.
*Dedicated to Raymond on his Birthday. Artlife 4 Ever!!!