nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2005
What's most interesting about Alex DeFazio's new play Radium is its structure, which is schematically laid out on the rear wall of the stage (though we don't realize it) before the play begins. What we see there are eleven panels of a diagram that could be the periodic table of elements (a twelfth panel, above the others, shows the play's title, which is of course element number 88). On the panels are letters and numbers that, we come to understand, indicate which of the play's five characters figure in each particular scene, and how long ago—from eleven months ago to three hours ago—the scene occurred. DeFazio jumps back and forth through time and space to explore the nature of these five people and their relationships with one another, in a manner that's as tantalizing as it is revelatory.
Unfortunately, what's not so interesting in Radium are the relationships themselves, even though the characters that DeFazio has created are intriguing. Let me introduce them to you: there's J., a hunky narcissist who derives pleasure from chasing less perfect specimens of manhood into his bed and then refusing to reach orgasm when he has sex with them; Ryan, a smart lawyer with a troubled past, just getting over a break-up with a longtime lover who decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery; Louis, said lover; and Zachary, a nice young man. At the center of the play is Alexis, a concert violist with serious self-esteem issues; the play tracks—though not linearly, as I've explained—his journey from a stable if one-sided relationship with Zachary to an abortive short-term one with Ryan to a self-destructive session with J. that occurs chronologically last but is shown to us first. A sixth "character," Louise, is Louis's female self, trapped inside Louis's male body; we meet her in a segment in which Louis's two halves confront one another as the sex-change operation looms heavily and scarily near.
The solo scenes are Radium's best: DeFazio probes his characters' psyches in detailed and often jolting ways. When Louis looks in the mirror and speaks to Louise we feel the raw insecurity and terror of a man making a genuinely life-altering decision in a vacuum (how else, ultimately, can a choice of this import get made?). When J. talks to us while admiring his own image in another mirror, we find ourselves eavesdropping on confessions of the most intimate sort, almost startling in their nakedness. Stories confided in us by Ryan and Zachary in their moments alone reveal aspects of their characters that fascinate and earn them our empathy.
But when DeFazio puts these men together in pairs (or puts them all together on stage, in the climactic penultimate scene), the interactions feel somehow trivial. Alexis emerges as almost willfully immature and egotistical, refusing to let either Zachary or Ryan connect to him; maybe J.'s sadistic treatment of him will jolt him to a reawakening (as the final scene, Alexis's very ambiguous and abstract monologue, suggests). In any case, though he's clearly Radium's protagonist, we wind up knowing too little about him, and what we know isn't very appealing. In fact, the only character I ended up actually liking is Zachary: he's the only one who seems genuinely concerned with others, and not exclusively wrapped up in his own problems.
Ryan delivers a few portentous speeches that attempt to relate the title to the play—what I could make of them was that these men's lives are being spent (squandered?) the way that radioactive metals decay; i.e., their lives are "half-lives." Here's a place where De Fazio is pushing too hard; elsewhere, his technique is skillful and interesting but doesn't show. I'll be watching for what he does next, and hope that the stories he tells in the future will have a little more depth to them.
And although the men in Radium do think and talk about sex a lot, the caution about nudity and frank language is probably exaggerated—there's only the merest glimpse of J. and Alexis in the buff, at the very beginning, and the sex talk is no more explicit than what you'd find in an R-rated film.
This production is spare and tight, featuring commendable staging by director Jody P. Person. The cast is diverse without anybody making a big deal about it, which I really like; the most effective among them are Jon Deliz as Zachary, Thay Floyd as Ryan, and Dustyn Gulledge and Elizabeth Sugarman as Louis and Louise, respectively.