Volume 18 • Issue 46 | March 31 - April 6, 2006

Anna Moller

Calling it quits: Grant James Varjas and Preston Clarke, band mates in “33 to Nothing,” grapple with getting older and giving up.

When the band doesn’t play on

By Jerry Tallmer

Gray’s mother is dying, his boyfriend Bri, the lead guitarist, has found some other boyfriend, and now Alex, the girl who plays bass, has disclosed that she’s marrying guitarist Tyler, and they plan on moving to Montclair, New Jersey, to make babies. So no more gigs for Alex and Tyler, but they still want to record with Gray, get his songs down on tape.

“Why?” Gray asks bitterly. “You wanna go into the studio and spend 85 bucks an hour, just so you can have a little CD to play for all your married friends? So you can sit in your house in Mont fucking Clair, while your kids and your friends’ klds have a … a playdate, listen to the CD, and be all ‘Oh aren’t we hip? Aren’t we cool. We were in a band, man …’ ”

Even more bitterly, Gray, the songwriter, keyboardist, and vocalist — the de facto leader of that band — has said to Alex: “I shoulda known you’d go all Yoko on me.”

“Yoko didn’t break up the Beatles,” Alex snaps.

“Okay. You’re right, I’m sorry. Linda McCartney did.”

When Bri, the boyfriend who has linked up with someone else, a fellow named Rick who is not as intense as Gray, speaks up now for Alex and Tyler (“You can’t be mad at those guys. They want to have kids, you know? Good for them”), Gray sneers: “Yeah. Fucking breeders. Always leaving the gays in the lurch. So what’s your excuse? You and Rick gonna have kids?”

Alex to Gray: “I’m sorry. You write good songs. I like them. I think we play them well. You have an okay voice. But seriously, how many bands with an average age of 36 and a singer with a receding hairline do you see breaking into the music business?”

Thus the tone and essential conflicts of “33 to Nothing,” the swift-moving, caustic new play-with-music that’s at the Bottle Factory Theater on East 3rd Street through April 29. If it is somewhat reminiscent of another swift-moving, caustic (but deeply stirring) play-with-music, Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin’s “The Last Session” of nine Off-Broadway seasons ago, be advised that Grant James Varjas, who wrote all the music plus all the words of “33 to Nothing,” and appears in it as Gray, had never heard of “The Last Session” until a journalist mentioned it last week.

Varjas himself doesn’t think Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles, but he does make the point that “as soon as the Beatles met women they loved, it ripped the band apart. It’s never an easy thing.”

A quiet-speaking (at least in an interview) 35-year-old with a slightly receding hairline, Varjas was 33 when he wrote the “33 or Nothing” song that gives the play its title. A fragment:

 
And I know you need
Much more than this silence
But I’m scared you thrive
On the emotional violence
But I wouldn’t bet
On who will hurt the other more.
I wouldn’t bet you, babe,
But I’m too old to keep score.
 
“Beat me,” said the masochist
“No sir,” said the sadist.
All we ever do is fight …
 
“Thirty-three,” Varjas said. “The age of a lot of people in the arts who haven’t had a lot of success, and wonder if they can keep on doing it.”

It’s the age of Gray in the show, not to mention — Varjas certainly didn’t mention it — the age of Jesus at crucifixion. But Varjas has something else in common with Gray. Two things.

“My mother was ill, when I wrote this play. It was sort of shaped by that. I’m Gray in a lot of ways.”

And Bri, the boyfriend who ditches Gray?

“Bri’s a combination of a lot of people, mostly my ex-boyfriend of the last three years, though we didn’t break up because someone [as in the play] cheated on someone else.

“All through high school I was always a better actor than musician. Acting I really naturally do. Music is something I work hard at. He [the real Bri] was an actor as well. We were together all through my mother’s illness. She died a year ago. We broke up two months ago.”

Of late, the actor — and playwright — has taken over from the musician. Varjas the actor appears in the HBO film of “The Laramie Project,” a report by Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic theatre company on the town and townspeople where Mathew Shepard was murdered. At present, the Tectonics, including Varjas, are working on a piece about Beethoven, late in life, writing his 33 variations on Diabelli’s Waltz.

There’s that number 33 again.

Varjas, born February 27, 1971, is from Oakdale, a tiny town near Mystic, Connecticut. His father, Gilbert Varjas — the roots are Hungarian — is a UConn baseball coach at Avery Point; his mother, Kathy McQueen Varjas, is an insurance agent.

“I’ve been in bands all my life,” said their son. He plays “piano, a little guitar — and I sing.” With “33 to Nothing,” he first wrote the songs, then the play — “because I missed being in a band, and wanted to bridge the gap between the band experience and the acting experience.”

There seems to be little correspondence between the mild, polite interviewee and the irascible Gray, the interviewee’s doppelganger. But Gray’s sarcasm and irony, says Varjas, is Varjas’s own. “It’s a sort of jousting, where everything references everything else. A lot of my friends are smart, smart people.”

The most appealing character in “33 to Nothing” is a kid named Barry, the drummer. He goes through the show saying things like: “I love The Smiths” … “I love R.E.M.” … “I love Gwen Stefani” … “Little Richard!” … “Mick Jagger!” … “I love lesbians” … “I love Pet Shop Boys.”

Says Varjas: “I had a drummer in one of my bands who was just like that. He was really excited, even if the bass player harangued him all the time. He still loved it. That’s also a classic relationship: the bassist and drummer, who have to play together, always blaming each other — a typical band dynamic.”

The Barry of “33 to Nothing” is Ken Forman. Alex is portrayed by Amanda Gruss, who learned to play bass for the part. Preston Clarke is Bri. John B. Good is guitarist Tyler — he also directs the show — and Gray is enacted by you know who.
“All except Preston Clarke are actors who had to whip themselves into shape as musicians. Preston is a musician who had to whip himself into shape as an actor.”

And Grant James Varjas, who these days lives alone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — he just whips himself, or lets Gray do it in words like these: “I’m sorry I love music. I thought that’s what people in bands did. I’m sorry I feel passionate about something.”

Don’t be sorry. Be passionate. Play on.


33 TO NOTHING. By Grant James Varjas. Directed by John B. Good. Through April 8 at the Bottle Factory Theater, 195 East 3rd Street, (212) 868-4444.



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