Desperation courses through Adam Strauss’s performance in The Mushroom Cure. The solo show, which he has written and stars in, details his battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and his attempts to find help. It’s a serious subject: the illness preys on the mind of its victims, allowing them no assurance that what they’re doing at any given moment is the right thing. It keeps them on a psychological yo-yo, and can impair their ability to form lasting relationships. Yet Strauss, a stand-up comedian, tells his story with humor as well, as the best playwrights do for serious material. (The piece won an Overall Excellence Award for Solo Performance at the New York Fringe Festival.)
The Mushroom Cureis structured as a series of scenes, with Strauss playing varying characters. Sometimes Strauss is the host, sitting on a vermilion swivel chair and speaking to us about his drug dealer, Slo. The chair also serves as office furniture when Strauss seeks help from a bizarre psychotherapist who turns out to have post-traumatic stress disorder. (A scene when they meet for a session in Tompkins Square Park is very funny.)
Strauss is becomingly ordinary, with his mop of black hair itself displaying some disorder, but less than his personality provides. He works up the courage to speak to a pretty young woman named Grace in a bar. She’s from Kansas, and he envisions her as innocent and not quite beautiful but acceptable. His waffling is a subtle indicator of the OCD at a mild stage. In any case, they have a one-night stand, and he finds he wants to see more of her, but she has only been visiting New York and is leaving for California. Stepping out of the present, Adam speaks of the ex-girlfriend Annie who left him, and reveals that Grace is the first woman who has slept over since Annie.
His relationship with Grace leads Strauss to search ever more desperately for biochemical relief for his disorder. He has already read about psilocybin mushrooms in a psychiatric journal—Grace is conveniently also studying medicine, and supports him. The article relates that some people have found their OCD entirely eliminated after the mushroom cure, so he has tried to order them through his marijuana dealer, Slo. But mushrooms are nowhere to be had; there’s a shortage.
Strauss then embarks on a series of other cures. He tries strange white powders ordered from China, and they arrive in plastic bags coded with numbers and letters. As each new avenue opens up, he gets jumpier and more fraught with anxiety.
In his search for relief, Strauss also tries cacti, as he and Grace get out of the city to a sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard, in a segment that’s particularly evocative and poetic. They see shrimp larvae misting in the moonlight by the shore. But Strauss’s OCD still has hold of him, and Grace’s patience with it seems unending. Until she can’t do it anymore.
Under the direction of Jonathan Libman, Strauss does a splendid job of navigating romance, pain, desperation, and humor in the piece. (During the press performance I attended, however, Strauss broke character to ask a woman in the front row not to scribble notes; it was a stunning breach of theatrical protocol, but given the history he was pouring forth, it was understandable. He did his best to incorporate the episode as a joke later on and alleviate the writer’s discomfort.)
Ultimately, Strauss acquires the psilocybin mushrooms and returns to Martha’s Vineyard alone, in the winter, to try them out. (The playwright in him carefully indicates the passage of time.) The experiment skirts a near-disaster, and brings him a measure of relief. That’s surely why the actor/playwright is donating all profits from the show to the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). It is the nonprofit behind the study that caught his eye.
Adam Strauss’s The Mushroom Cure is playing at the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce Street, three blocks south of Christopher Street) through August 13. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Matinees are Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets may be ordered by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting themushroomcure.com.