Heroes and Other Strangers
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 13, 2011
Often in life, we arrive in a situation where we're aiming to help someone else and end up instead learning much more about ourselves. Whether or not we achieve our original goal, we acquire something just as valuable. And sometimes the best lessons are the ones we never intended to learn. In Heroes and Other Strangers, Zac Jaffee's new one-man show premiering at this year's New York International Fringe Festival, Lenny, our "hero," sets out on a journey to find two teenage runaways but ends up finding himself.
Heroes and Other Strangers begins in New York City in 1971 with Lenny, a 21-year-old mousy photographer, who works in a Greenwich Village camera shop, avoided Vietnam, and has led a fairly unassuming life. Then, Susan, the teenage sister of his recently deceased best friend Bobby, goes missing and her father dispatches an unlikely and reluctant Lenny to San Francisco, where he suspects she's run off to, to find her. Lenny arrives in San Francisco as an obvious outsider, among hippies, revolutionaries, and free spirits, Lenny sticks out like a sore thumb, finding himself wondering how he went from a camera shop job to makeshift private detective. Constantly being checked on by Susan's father, a pressured Lenny can't seem to find his way into a San Francisco society entirely made up of people like the ones he's searching for, who only want to protect their own. Lenny inadvertently gets pulled into this society in his quest and finds a world of drugs, sex, and freedom completely alien to his own, as he finds himself at drugged-out parties, seemingly lured into a possible threesome with some revolutionaries, and almost pulled into a plot by a radical group. Fountain, another runaway girl making her home in San Francisco and embracing the lifestyle, whom Lenny comes into "contact" with, makes an astute observation: "You really just want to be a hero, don't you, Lenny? You come all the way out here to be a hero? I guess it's easier to be a hero when nobody knows you, huh?"
Lenny's journey and all of the characters he comes into contact with (and they are colorful characters—it is 1970s San Francisco after all) are brought to life through Zac Jaffee's Lenny. Jaffee delivers Heroes and Other Strangers as a seventy-five minute story to the audience, retelling his experiences. Jaffee has a great ease and presence on stage, he makes Lenny extremely likable and relatable and never loses focus even when he goes off on tangents—holding the audience's attention for every second. The characters he creates are subtle and strong; they are Lenny's "version" of each of these people, which actually makes it more amusing and endearing. Jaffee balances his moments of seriousness, dry wit, and awkwardness perfectly, managing an understated but brilliant performance.
The writing flows beautifully between plot and character asides. Particularly great is Jaffee's using of the setting. It never feels like it needs to be set in this era, but only because he doesn't hit us over the head with it. The sentiment of 1970s San Francisco (and New York for that matter) permeate throughout and gives it heart. It ends up being more powerful because it's subtle (which is the overall power of the piece). The words and imagery are also beautifully cinematic. This may seem odd to say about a one-man piece that has no other set but a folding chair, but the descriptions of Berkeley and vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge played like a movie in my imagination.
Heroes and Other Strangers starts out giving us a story about a man looking for two girls and ends up giving us a story of this man's experience and development. It reminds us how our own lives often twist away from the main road and out to unexpected paths. Zac Jaffee has given us a journey worth taking this year at the FringeNYC.