Strong Validation for Gay Heroes: “The Misadventures of Spy Matthias” and “Lifers”

The Misadventures of Spy Matthias, Theatre on Fire, Charlestown Working Theatre, through April 4. 617-242-3285 or charlestownworkingtheatre.org

Lifers, Happy Medium Theatre and Argos Productions, Boston Playwrights Theatre, through April 5. 617-353-5443 or bostonplaywrightstheatre.org

-Jules Becker

Gay heroes are finding vibrant voice in affecting new plays at two Hub venues. “The Misadventures of Spy Matthias,” a disarming blend of satire, parody and romance by John Byers (the 2013 IRNE Award-winning ‘’The Fakus: A Noir”) at Charlestown Working Theatre, centers on the personal ups-and-downs of fictional gay photographer Matty Olchak as he looks for a lasting relationship. “Lifers,’ a slice-of-life comedy by John Shea (IRNE Award- nominated “Junkie”) and Maureen Cornell at Boston Playwrights Theatre, focuses on the fortunes of co-workers- one an out would-be manager- in a re-opening restaurant. Both Theater on Fire’s stylish “Spy Matthias” and Happy Medium Theatre and Argos Productions’ arresting “Lifers” are so well staged that they instantly serve notice that savvy theatergoers should look to so-called fringe theater for much of Boston’s best new fare and many of the Hub’s best ensemble efforts.

“The Misadventures of Spy Matthias,” set “now and then in Matty’s life and imagination,” takes its conflicted title protagonist on a kind of emotional roller coaster ride-by turns amusing, outrageous and ultimately heartfelt. A compulsive voyeur- whom the play compares to the Jimmy Stewart camera man of the Hitchcock classic “Rear Window”- “only gayer,” the 31 year old adventurer regularly photographs men –many in various states of undress –unbeknownst to them from outside their residences . Quite simply, he seems to be looking in at life rather than fully experiencing it.

That vicarious existence evolves briefly during a relationship with a 20-something actor named Jonah, whose acting ability never matches his impressive physique. For a while, alcohol-dependent Jonah pulls Matty into an addictive misadventure involving a kind of foreplay of fighting that leads to lust without love. Throughout the play, Matty’s judgmental father Ollie greets his son’s generally helter-skelter personal life with tough love that is not altogether unwarranted.  Compounding Matty’s emotional insecurity are other title experiences including an unsatisfying encounter with a shoe salesman with a foot-fetish and a very edgy confrontation with a wheel-chair bound veteran with startling attitude.

Most promising in the long run for Matty is an ongoing friendship with an insightful if vulnerable doctor named Philip Raskin, who dresses up as a cowboy and yodels in a very amusing number. The on-and off dating of Matty and Philip- especially thanks to standout work from Greg Maraio as the former and R. Nelson Lacey as the latter- ultimately becomes the strongest plot link in a play as thoughtful in its own way as Paul Rudnick’s similarly picaresque comedy “Jeffrey.” Will Matty find real love with Philip, who clearly adores him? Skillful playwright Byers makes the curious denouement completely convincing.

Equally convincing is the play’s interweaving of Matty’s title experiences, his dreams and moments of truth with cartoon-like images, wonderfully evoked by projection designer Deirdre Benson. Multiply talented artistic director Darren Evans- producer, co-projectionist and sound designer to boot- sharply paces the switches from present to past in Byers’ short (85 minutes) but dense play as Matty comes to terms with his priorities. Maraio proves very appealing as both restrained and fully life-embracing Matty. Lacey, a sweet hoot in his karaoke number, brings fine pathos to Philip’s own emotional growth.

Janelle Mills displays impressive versatility playing Matty’s ethereal mother Helen-thought to be in Poland as well as tough-talking Ollie. Michael Ryan has the right combination of obsessiveness and languor as Jonah. Adam Siladi as the veteran brings persuasive menace to his unrelenting tone with Maraio’s beleaguered Matt.  Steve Auger has his moments as the shoe salesman.

“The Misadventures of Spy Matthias,” alternately racy, rollicking and reflective, is a Theater on Fire triumph.

Are restaurant co-workers struggling ‘inmates’ of their profession or respected, hard-working colleagues? The John Shea-Maureen Cornell play “Lifers” suggests the former image in its prison-connected title metaphor but eventually reaches varying degrees of validation for employees coping with the 2004-set transformation of an unassuming local eatery into a would-be magnet for upscale sophisticates.  This Happy Medium Theatre  and Argos Productions collaboration makes Shea and Cornell’s authentic sounding and looking  theatrical entree  (about 75 minutes)  so savory that some theatergoers are likely to come back for seconds. Particularly winning is the camaraderie of the characters –save tactless new manager Sherry- who accept each other as if members of an unassuming extended family.

An important part of that acceptance involves out perceptive worker Michael, who occasionally flirts with pre-graduate school straight summer worker Winfield. Under Argos artistic director Breet Mark’s smart helm, Michael DiLoreto captures Michael’s easy comfort level of sexuality as well as his incisiveness as a would be manager who steps in at a pivotal moment of crisis during the re-opening of the restaurant. Audrey Lynn Silia has the right combination of abrasiveness and vulnerability as Sherry. The first-rate ensemble also includes potential ‘lifers’ Marie-played with the right work-weariness by Maureen Adduci- and Doyle, captured with salty snappiness by Peter Brown. Rounding out the fine cast are Lisette Marie Morris’ properly troubled Carla and David D’Andrea’s engagingly unpredictable Wingfield. Marc Ewart’s well-detailed kitchen set is as warm and welcoming as the knowing “Lifers.”

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