The Altruists: Murder, Mistaken Identity and Misconstrued Relationships

The Rice Players, the oldest student-run theatre company in Houston, offers some memorable moments during their current run of Nicky Silver’s The Altruists. It’s a difficult but fast-paced production with many monologues – oftentimes delivered to the fourth wall – as three separate storylines weave together in a comedy with a tragic ending. Presented in alternating scenes in three Manhattan apartments, it tells the tale of self-absorbed 20- and 30-somethings, social benefactors who suffer the consequences of mistaken identity and misconstrued relationships.

Silver almost always works in an over-the-top female character; in this case it’s the anorexic and narcissistic actress Sydney, played with full relish by Hannah Tyler. As popular soap opera character Montana Beach, Sydney was able to furnish her apartment with antiques and first editions, only to see them disappear by way of the endless theft of her parasitic boyfriend’s merry band of so-called radical cohorts. Sydney loves her things, but she loves herself even more; the larger-than-life publicity photo hanging over the bed drives the point home. Anger builds in her opening rant, wavering just a little as she remembers the sexual stamina and beautiful eyes of her boyfriend lying under the covers, until she is so consumed with rage that she fires her gun three times into his body. Instantly remorseful, Sydney makes plans to plead self-defense, as her metabolism was clearly affected by her adherence to the Atkins diet. “At 29 I’m too old for TV and too young for prison.”

We soon learn that her boyfriend is not dead after all; Ethan is played with full bad-boy swagger by Chris Sanders. There’s some confusion at first, with Ethan thinking Sydney was dead, and vice versa, but then whose body is on the bed?

Parallel storylines evolve between Sydney’s social-worker brother Ronald, played by Justin Bernard, and his budding romance with street hustler Lance, played by the shirtless Alan Kim. Most of their action occurs in and around the bed; there’s one hilarious scene with Lance telling Ronald exactly what he wants to hear, though his delivery proves otherwise.

Meanwhile, falling-off-the-wagon lesbian Cybil, as played by Abby Sledge, wavers between packing her stink bombs (or is it firebombs?) for the next protest rally and penning letters to her lover Audrey. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. Love Cybil.”

The pièce de résistance has to be during the simultaneous sexually-charged scene, with Cybil proclaiming, “Oh God,” as she is flanked by Sydney and Ethan going at it in one apartment, with Lance and Ronald getting hot and heavy in the other.

The 90-minute play wraps up in a neat little bow, as they eventually discover the identity of the murdered victim and hatch a plan to identify the killer. The irony of the final scene is a slap in the face, as the group heads off to protest the execution of an innocent man. Although the play premiered in New York’s Vineyard Theatre in 2000, its focus on injustice remains relevant with today’s headlines.

The Altruists continues through November 21, at Rice University, Hamman Hall, 6100 Main, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 713-348-7529 or $10. 
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney