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Off-Off-Broadway Review

Surviving Love

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Surviving Love
Photo Source: Colleen Rae Holmes
Writer-performer Robert Chionis displays good taste in his selection of contemporary songs for his almost-one-man musical about a young gay boy from the sticks finding love in New York City at the start of the AIDS epidemic. Unfortunately, there's little else that's good about this awkwardly delivered, poorly scripted show.

The level of the obvious writing is exemplified by having the boy come from "Nowhere, USA." Then there's the fact that the story is told through narration in the third person. If the tale is autobiographical, and that's unclear, then this choice is mystifying. But even if the boy is a fictional figure, constantly talking about him only distances us. And why have the narration occasionally spoken by the show's accompanist? We assume at the very least that Chionis, by virtue of being the actor-author at center stage, has a compelling reason for being there. That doesn't extend to the anonymous guy at the Yamaha keyboard (which Timothy Long plays quite well, let me add).

It's unclear from the operatically trained, Vienna-based Chionis' program bio how much acting he's ever done. Physically stiff and uncomfortable, he mostly indicates emotion or comments on it, which perhaps accounts for the use of the third person: He hasn't the chops to create one character, let alone a gallery of them. The stiffness extends to his singing, in a high baritone voice that still displays considerable power but clearly has seen better days. (During the several times he tries to scat, his rigidity is painful.) He seldom inhabits his musical material, seeming to focus more on the production of sound than emotion, especially when singing high and loud.

Chionis' song choices are never dramatically inappropriate, and while the eclectic mix of art songs, cabaret selections, and the occasional theater number never quite seems of a piece, they co-exist without too much strife. I particularly enjoyed encountering Arnold Weinstein and William Bolcom's "Amor" and Bolcom's "George," and it was nice to hear Ricky Ian Gordon and Tina Landau's haunting "Finding Home," from "Dream True," again. Other fine writers represented include William Finn, Adam Guettel, Brian Lasser, John Bucchino, and Stephen Schwartz–Charles Strouse. On the downside, Chionis' excessive rendition of "My Immortal," by Ben Moody, Amy Lee, and David Hodges, turns the moment of the boy's older lover's death into turgid melodrama, and Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's "Totally Fucked" does not work as an effortful solo.

Director Stephan Perdekamp has an unfortunate tendency to underline moments of high emotion with the throwing and kicking of props and set pieces, which in the tiny black-box space comes across as particularly eggy. He should also have prevented Chionis from having Long play an extended instrumental on a bare stage in the middle of the show, for dramatic reasons that I couldn't fathom.

I have no doubt that this is a sincere effort by Chionis to share something of great personal emotional importance. Alas, sincerity alone rarely wins the day.

Presented by the Open Acting Academy Hamburg-Wien and Daniel Wolfsbauer Productions as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival at the WorkShop Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., 4th floor, NYC. July 20–24. Remaining performances: Sat., July 23, 5 p.m.; Sun., July 24, noon. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.midtownfestival.org.

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