Pitch black and poignant

Photo by Michelle Laird Between matching wits and comparing scars, Steph (holding card) finds time to get turned on by the sexy medical coverage of Jamie.

Photo by Michelle Laird
Between matching wits and comparing scars, Steph (holding card) finds time to get turned on by the sexy medical coverage of Jamie.

BY PUMA PERL   |  Picture Nick and Nora shaking martinis mixed with Prozac while sitting on the railroad tracks. That, and the program description (“a pitch black and piercingly incisive comedy”) should give you a pretty good indication of what to expect.

The one word title — “Chemistry” — is multilayered. Sharply written banter and well-delivered one-liners allow us to access the darkness of the tragedy unfolding before us, as Steph (Lauren LaRocca) and Jamie (Jonathan Hopins) meet in a psychiatrist’s office. Thank God, the “meet cute” stereotype is avoided. Steph, a veteran of hospitalizations and suicide attempts, has become as well-versed in her understanding of pharmaceuticals as any resident on psych rotation. Jamie, who is a novice at negotiating prescriptions, diagnoses and psychiatric assessments, has recently harmed himself while, presumably, enduring a manic episode.

A relationship begins, as they match wits and compare scars. It is a casting strength that these characters are not model-perfect. Besides the rare pleasure of seeing people with real bodies, it brings the pain of living with mental illness home, reminding us of how little we know of what our friends and neighbors may be enduring.

‘Chemistry’ increases our understanding of mental illness

Steph is adorable, funny, smart, and probably has heard all of her life that she has everything to live for. But, as she says, “I can’t wait for non-existence. I still want to die even when I’m happy.” But, courageously, she has continued, although her hopes for herself, and the relationship, have been modified. A world that doesn’t hurt as much as it used to may be enough. Jamie, on the other hand, finds the distraction of his medication’s side effects an unbearable compromise to who he is. He cannot read, concentrate or function in the Type A way that he feels defines him. He takes himself off his meds and returns to work; Steph takes to her bed. The gifted and likable young actors display the tangibility of a love that is healing for him, but cannot heal her.

CHEMISTRY  |  A FringeNYC presentation

Written by Jacob Marx Rice
Directed by Anna Strasser
Runtime: 1h 20m
Aug. 16, 4:45 p.m. | Aug. 18, 7:30 p.m. | Aug. 19, 2 p.m. | Aug. 22, 7 p.m.
At 64E4 UNDERGROUND
64 E. Fourth St. (btw. Bowery & Second Ave.)
For tickets ($18), purchase at FringeNYC.org | By Smartphone: FringeOnTheFly.com | By credit card at the Box Office | By cash at FringeCentral (114 Norfolk St., btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.)

Director Anna Strasser has made choices that allow the characters to move in and out of the simple set and occasionally break the fourth wall. Asides to the audience may consist of a cocked eyebrow, or expand to narrations and ruminations. At one point, the characters take turns providing information to the audience. This is Strasser’s one misstep. She and the playwright have allowed the actors to trade fours like jazz musicians, so a sudden foray into an educational segment feels forced and unnecessary — especially since “Chemistry” has already increased our understanding of mental illness in a manner that’s real, poignant and funny — though not played for laughs.

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