Fine fettle

Heavy Mettle

Written and performed by Richard Hoehler
Directed by Leigh Strimbeck
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Raw Space Theatre L
529 W. 42nd St. (279-4200/
Equity showcase (closes July 28)
Review by John Chatterton

Richard Hoehler's strength is the detail he brings to his characterizations. In Heavy Mettle he creates five: Lawrence White, a novelist who supports himself by collecting redeemable bottles; John Santos, a Cuban-Polish flyer distributor trying to stay sober; Michael Walsh, an Irish store manager whose life is falling apart; a bipolar cable weatherman; and an Alzheimer's sufferer whose life is made meaningful by selling balloons.

That these five characterizations are so distinct is a credit to his mastery as writer and actor. These men have rage to spare, but they also have a strong life force. The novelist, Lawrence White, started out by distributing coupons to the audience and telling them that he's not going to do the scheduled reading essentially because he doesn't want to cheapen his art. He's organized and a survivor (of Nam, too, it turns out), and filled with unresolved rage against the world. But when his mother calls on his cell phone and needs help getting to the hospital, he succumbs to his bonds to the outside world and starts the scheduled reading, accepting donations from his listeners.

John Santos, the flyer guy, is trying to stay sober while under extreme stress because his fiancée, Betty, has been going to lunch with a college grad (Santos never graduated high school). He's ready to drop off the edge into substance abuse but gets in touch with his higher power, for Betty's sake.

The store manager, Michael Walsh, is sitting on a crate outside his store announcing discounted items over a PA when he gets calls from his mother, who suffers from dementia, and his brother Kevin's lover, Hector, to tell him that his brother is about to die. (Michael had no idea that Kevin was gay and still tries to deny everything about his AIDS.) Michael is finally forced to recognize Hector's existence; as the lights fade, he mechanically continues to call out discounts.

The most bizarre character, Ted Wilgucki the bipolar weatherman, got fired from his regular TV job for asking kids to pray for snow and dancing on the newsroom desks during a broadcast. He now works for public access channel 76 and is ecstatic that 40 inches of snow (he has always loved the stuff) are due. In an unforgettable moment, he throws his medications to the wind, and they come down like snowflakes.

The final sketch, Leo Rosen the balloon man, portrays an Alzheimer's victim making his last stand against the darkness armed only with a bunch of balloons. At first he seems find, at one point asking an audience member to read a letter he posted to his former customers on his last day of work as a gasman. When he forgets that he has done so and asks her to read it again, it becomes clear that he is worse off than he has let on.

Hoehler's message may be simplistic ("We are not separate beings, you and I/We are different strands of the same Being"), but the examples he uses to convey it do so through simplicity and uniqueness. The staging made the most of a few props and set pieces (a waste basket and a portable staircase) as well as expressive costumes choices. Lighting underpinned the mood changes with subtle changes of color and focus.

This is deceptively simple theatre of the highest order.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton