It’s hard to get too excited about a play about grief, so it should be stated upfront that “Lazarus Syndrome,” running at Richmond Triangle Players, is the funniest, most unexpectedly charming play about grief in recent memory.
No wailing or gnashing of teeth bogs down the intermission-free proceedings. Instead, largely because of a fleet-footed cast, “Lazarus” offers 90 minutes of the complex joys and bittersweet losses that make up the hearty core of life, delivering a life-affirming treatise on why we go on.
At the center of this comic drama is Elliot (Andrew Firda), who contracted the AIDS virus decades ago. Unlike scores of his friends who perished during the epidemic, he lives on. And the guilt of his survival weighs him down like an anchor, even in the face of his impossibly cheerful younger partner, Steven (Stevie Rice). Steven is an actor who’s been tapped to tour with a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and when Elliot holes up in his apartment for nine days after Steven’s departure, Elliot’s brother (Andrew Boothby) and father (Alan Sader) arrive to try to cheer him up.
Even when playing something of a sad sack, Firda has a loose-limbed appeal that allows him to wear grief lightly. You can see why Steven loves Elliot, as Firda projects just enough spark to make you believe there’s still a Winnie the Pooh inside this Eeyore. Rice transcends what could be an eye-candy role to project palpable warmth and affection as Steven.
It’s a treat to watch Boothby — who over the years often has played “generic middle-aged white guy” roles — inhabit a complicated character with skill. From awkward references to his “bro” to treading into touchy territory about AIDS victims making “a choice,” Boothby’s Neil truly is three-dimensional, and shows a winning chemistry with both Firda and Sader.
Sader’s patriarch is the engine, and his insistence on having a real Jewish Sabbath dinner propels the action and justifies the inclusion of the play in the Acts of Faith festival. His gruff, no-nonsense demeanor eventually fractures to reveal regret and affection, Sader giving a finely attenuated performance all along. His malapropisms, such as referring to the “LG-BLT” community, also provide some of the shows biggest laughs.
While the Sabbath dinner proceeds, it becomes clear that all of these men have suffered and their Jewish heritage offers the ultimate trump card of grief — as Elliot states, “You can’t beat the Holocaust.” What to do in the face of loss is a question never quite answered, but the tenderly devastating final scenes show a man finding a way to at least take that first step out into the world again.
There are many delicate nuances to juggle here and director Keith Fitzgerald finds just the right balance. The laughs are frequent but never cheap, and the sentiment is so lightly applied that it’s barely there. The story plays out on a spacious apartment set, nicely appointed by set designer David Allan Ballas, and both the lighting design (Andrew Bonniwell) and sound design, uncredited, provide key transitions between times of day and states of mind.
Like the best of this theater’s work, “Lazarus Syndrome” highlights what’s both unique and universal about the gay experience. More importantly, it’s entertaining and life-affirming in a way that will make you forget it’s a show about grief. S
“Lazarus Syndrome” runs at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave, through March 19. Visit rtriangle.org for tickets and information.