Life in the arts, particularly in theater, can be glorious, uplifting, and life changing. Of course, with this high that blesses so many hopefuls also comes the potential for extreme disappointment, exploitation, and devastation. Theater and film are littered with stories about life in theater and film, and among the examples of the glittery rise and fall tale are A Chorus Line, Gypsy, Rent, A Star Is Born, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Or, for another instance of this dramatic arc, see 21 Stories: A Broadway Tale, now at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Written by G.W. Stevens, directed by Michael Berry, and co-starring Stevens and Marilyn Rising, 21 Stories is often appealing and sometimes touching. But it does little to improve upon the genre, filled as it is with navel-gazing artists.
Set in 1984, the play chronicles the experiences of two young people who move to New York City to pursue their dreams. Billy Youngblood, played by Stevens with a consistent look of wide-eyed hopefulness and a toothy half-smile, is a native of Yorkshire, England. Back home he was a popular football enthusiast, but in New York he is an aspiring Broadway dancer. Margaret Evans, played by Rising, is from Texas. Abandoned by her father at a young age after he instilled in her a love and talent for the piano, she runs away to New York to find her father and perhaps become a great pianist.
Both are living on the 21st floor of a Manhattan high-rise, and they become friends who support each other through their trials: Margaret's Vicatin addiction and Billy's relationship with a drug-abusing playboy.
The set is mostly decorated with two elements: impressionistic images of New York and an ensemble of dancers who create the ambience for most scenes. Mostly wordless throughout the show, the nine dancers rush onstage to create crowded city streets, a busy club scene, small pieces of big musicals, and unfriendly swarms of cattle-call auditioners.
The dancers' presence, and the way they engulf Billy and Margaret and enrich their environments, is one of the most engaging and remarkable elements in the production. And the fact that every Broadway song is lip-synced and no one ever sings (except Billy, who sings in spurts and usually just for emphasis) may be simply for convenience, but it also adds a ghostly quality to the ensemble.
Because those emotional, half-sung moments go to Billy, he clearly owns the show, even though 21 Stories is billed as a look at a "couple of misfits." Understandably, Stevens, one of the co-writers, spends more time examining his character, who (spoiler alert) by the end succumbs to the despair of having contracted AIDS from a callous lover and then kills him and himself. Margaret, who we learn through a brief hint has prostituted herself for Vicatin, also kills herself, apparently for no other reason than her failure to find her father and the fact that she didn't get into Juilliard.
Stevens, while unquestionably charismatic and energetic, becomes a bit of a one-trick pony, relying on his considerable charm and watery blue eyes to create a sympathetic character. And while Billy's story is interesting, it doesn't give enough new insight into the tragedy of AIDS (or into broken hearts and dreams) to sustain a two-person show. Anyone who saw the semi-autobiographical Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick