What self-destructive urges drive males to engage in addictive and deadly behaviors while, often, those who want to help them end up hurt? Is it the failure of love to solace, or is it something deeper than that: the way anything in life, if pursued single-mindedly, can become an addictive ritual to escape life's disappointments? Jerrod Bogard's powerful new play, Hugging the Shoulder, now at the New York International Fringe Festival, explores these ideas through a love triangle involving two brothers and a girlfriend. The younger, yet seemingly more mature, gay brother drives his older brother cross-country so the latter can detox both from heroin and his recent breakup: he literally must try to puke out all the anger and grief that's in his system before overdosing. Alternating between these scenes are flashbacks of the characters' domestic conflicts, which include abuse, drug addiction, cheating, and the whole gamut of adult sorrows.
The play's intensity can be overwhelming at first, especially as its verisimilitude so exactingly captures the yearnings and dysfunctions of those at a dead end: the way, dog-like, they crawl back to the hand that beats them because it's also the hand that feeds them. Yet Bogard's script displays the subtlety of a mature Sam Shepard play with scenes that can seem merely real or like fantastical, metaphorical nightmares. The difference between the two is painfully thin.
Brian Floyd, playing the older brother, Jeremy, gives a richly textured portrayal of a man who has been damaged by life. Sean Dingman, as the younger brother, Derrick, likewise gives an emotionally convincing depiction of a conflicted do-gooder who begins to realize that his need to save others may, in fact, only hide his own helplessness.
The set, designed by Sean Boat, quickly transforms from dashboard and car seats to coffee-table spread with porno magazines and Budweisers next to a beat-up couch, conveying both the painful realism and the dream-like quality of the play.
By the end, the audience itself feels the ruptures between well-meaning longings and the hallucinations one creates when they are frustrated.