Up until, ahem, pretty recently, you could get away with making the claim that as Americans we are far more enlightened than we were 50, or even 10 years ago. The numbers appear to support this– fewer of us are going to church, the youngins among us are far more tolerant than the olds, 60 percent of us are down to see marijuana legalized, and best of all, this whole “Golden Age of TV” thing means that even our beloved Idiot Box is smart these days. We all know what happened next– which meant that progress was not only going to be stopped, but deported back to Angela Merkel’s lap and replaced by nonsense rhetoric (the “best people” are doing “tremendous” things to make the U.S.A. “great” “again”) and “alternative facts.” We are only a few months into this horror show, but the impact on art, and how we process art, is already being felt.
I was thinking a lot about this newfound truthiness between the first and second acts of Kyle– a play by Hollis James that was shopped as “a cocaine comedy” during a recent run at the tiny East Village basement theater Under St. Marks– because the hero of this story, much like Donald Trump & Co., was entirely comfortable with spewing brazen lies, repeatedly, often in the absence of any evidence to support his claims, and even after getting caught and called a liar to his face, he forged on. We can only speculate about Trump’s motivations, whereas Jack, honing a cocaine habit, was just doing everything in his power to keep the powder poppin’. Unless you ares somehow completely free of guilt (in which case, cheers!) humans generally have to justify such bad behavior– having an out-of-control ego helps; so does a simple cost/benefit analysis that concerns you and only you (both of which might explain Trump’s “indifferent” attitude toward the truth).
Jack, on the other hand, seems like a relatively OK guy– he’s self-deprecating, smart, and must be nice because he writes children’s books. He’s living in a shabby little apartment in New York City, but even if his means are modest Jack is living the dream– he has regular work, a roof over his head, and girlfriend named Crystal who says stuff like, “You know you always have carte blanche to nerd out with me.” She even wants to move in together.
Unfortunately none of these things prevented Jack from crossing over into the parallel universe of drug addiction, which is ruled by upside-down junkie logic and totally sapped of any shame, responsibility, and motivation. How did he get there and why? Jack’s answers are completely stupid, at best: “It’s fun!” at first; it’s like coffee, only better for late nights (ed. note: all-nighters) to meet (miss) deadlines. I mean, how can Jack be expected to have any answers at all? Even when his girlfriend is ready to dump him, he’s not prepared to admit defeat: “I don’t have a problem with coke.” Crystal snaps back, “I know you don’t have a problem with coke. You have a problem without coke.”
Moments like these are a dead giveaway that Kyle‘s creator, Hollis James, must have starred in a real life “cocaine comedy” of his own at some point. Yup, it’s true– promotional materials confirm that Kyle “was inspired by [the writer’s] knock-down-drag-out battle with drug addiction.”
But James does not abuse his power as an insider– what sets Kyle apart from literally every other performance-based account of drug use is the complete lack of sensationalism. You won’t have to watch some dude slam a dirty syringe into an abscessed vein, or suffer a 13-year-old girl blazing down a fat bowl of crystal meth in the CD section at Wal-Mart and quick bodyslam some cop so she can get back to downloading the new Skrillex album with her skull. As tempting as these plot lines sound, James remains completely true to a dominant theme of addiction: boredom. Profound and utter boredom.
And instead of doing the predictable thing and starring as Jack, the writer has cast himself as Kyle. In this role, he is immediately recognizable as something more than just a hanger-on type who seems to have endless free time to loaf around Jack’s apartment, chatting like a maniac and persuading him to party.
It wasn’t just good acting that ensured Kyle looked exactly like the personification of cocaine, something within James’s very soul allowed him to radiate the spirit of a New Jersey Chili’s manager who still has the same haircut he did when he went away for a botched attempt at unarmed robbery, thanks to some gas station attendant who called his bluff and knocked the banana out of his grip. Now that, my friends, is cocaine. Consider that costumes for this thing were no more elaborate than what you can dig up at a Long Island garage sale–outdated and overly gelled-up spiky hair; a drained, vitamin-deficient, pasty Caucasian pallor; “edgy” faded black clothing and a band t-shirt. His body language– incurably fidgety, twitchy, and totally incapable of sitting still– is on point too, and even cocaine’s less touted, more disappointing effects are there, including the mind-blanking, brain drain, which make creative productivity impossible. The almost too-good cliché-ness of it all, fits nicely with the plot twist– Kyle isn’t a real human at all, but a figment of Jack’s increasingly dull imagination.
Thankfully, Kyle doesn’t go so far as to diagnose Jack with Multiple Personality Disorder, but he does seek professional help. Actually, it was Jack’s therapist’s idea to isolate the beast. “If you can name it, you can tame it,” she advised. In fact, it was only at the insistence of another woman, Jack’s BFF and boss Reggie, that he ended up talking to a shrink in the first place. “Look, the most boring thing in the world is a drunk, Manhattan cokehead,” she warned. “Don’t let yourself become a cliché.” Even before that Jack had stopped making any effort to hide the habit from his girlfriend Crystal, who refused to play along with his “alternate reality where I’m a bitch” and the notion that she was just getting in the way of Jack being Jack. As the saying goes, “Boys will be boys.” Obviously Crystal was being sarcastic when she referred to Jack’s “true self”– it’s clear that he is desperately lacking in that department.
At the end of the play, Reggie stops by to check on Jack, who’s holed up in his apartment, a few weeks sober and still miserable. “It’s not just coke; it’s everything,” he says. “Kyle’s that part of me who needs to drink all the liquor in the cabinet. He needs to eat every Fig Newton in the sleeve. He has a habit of making everything a habit.”
Reggie– whose understandably less-than-sympathetic attitude toward Jack’s frivolous behavior can be summed up as an eye roll, “over it,”and “ain’t nobody got time for this white boy-problems BS”–scrunches up her face in disbelief. “Why Kyle? That’s such a white-bread name,” she says. I wondered the same thing about the grand finale. Crystal is back (god knows why), and the happy couple are getting ready to go for a jog. Yep, that’s right– clean exercise, without any cocaine at all. But Jack gets a little too excited about the run and starts to pump his legs as if caught in a trance. But Crystal is there at Jack’s side, and she calms him down with the touch of her hand. “Now, honey, remember… You know how you get. So don’t overdo it today. Okay?” As they ran off together into the sunset, I screamed quietly under my breath.