One-person shows are difficult. One-person shows about mental disorders are even harder. In Gary Mizel's play Memoirs of a Manic Depressive, Dexter Brown journeys through the ups and downs in the life of a man with bipolar disorder. From riding high in a red Porsche to being terrified by alien voices in the living room, Mizel's story is at once disconcerting and heartening. The show takes place at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street, named for the Broadway director and Off-Broadway champion. (Best known, perhaps, for his controversial staging of Jean Genet's The Blacks in 1960.) His theater school, where the motto was "You don't just get the Gene Frankel technique, you get Gene Frankel," closed upon his death this past April. The theater has continued producing, and Memoirs features two of his disciples: Brown and director Lorca Peress.
This is Mizel's first foray into playwriting, and as a man with bipolar disorder himself, it is clear that this is one way he can portray the ever-changing world in which he lives. Lucky for us, he has a sense of humor: "See, bipolars used to be called manic-depressives, but I think a better euphemism would be 'the sanely challenged.' "
Brown has spent far more time in the theater world than Mizel has; plus, he personally trained with Frankel. It is odd, then, that it is Brown's pacing that allows Mizel's script to often drop precipitously. That said, he does a commendable job at evoking deep emotions, such as the wracking grief of his mother's death or the excessive elation of a manic episode.
While the play's title may be daunting, the content is actually peppered with candid humor, especially to audience members who know people with bipolar disorder and understand the power of understatement. At one point, the character "Gary" admits, "I take drugs. Specifically, Zoloft, Lithium, Trilofon. With them I get to be human. But before I was diagnosed as bipolar, I was, shall we say, 'moody.' "
Evidently, Mizel's life has been quite a challenge--from his mother's suicide to his own mental illness. This is a brave play, publicly airing the inner struggles of a man with a trying disease. Dale Wasserman made some strides in this area with his 1963 stage version of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Tennessee Williams's shaky little Laura in The Glass Menagerie arguably has a mental illness; and, of course, Jessie Cates in 'night, Mother is anything but well. But the man in Memoirs finds a happier ending than those characters, thus making mental illness less of a spectacle and more of a difficult struggle that can end in victory.
Unlike those other full-length plays, too, Memoirs demands a virtuoso solo performance. While Brown is capable enough to get the audience through the 90-minute piece, he moves less than gracefully through the tumultuous scenes. A tough job, though, to be sure. In his worn-out jeans, white sneakers, and blue button-down, he does not embody the Manhattan stockbroker the character is meant to be.
Peress has also encouraged a lot of direct addresses to the audience, which is always a bit disconcerting if the fourth wall is not broken early on. In this case, it is especially disconcerting because this is a one-man play, not a comedy routine or a tell-all. Her sound design, however, is spot-on, with apt entrance music and well-done voiceovers as the voices in Mizel's head.
While bipolar disorder affects only about 3 percent of the world's adult population, those who have it suffer mightily from the auditory hallucinations ("hearing voices"), delusions, and severe swings between mania and depression. If these Memoirs leave us with anything, though, it is the confidence that such an affliction can be overcome.