Last Inaction Heroes

Mostly thanks to Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan, cinemagoers of all demographics are currently obsessed with unlocking the mysteries of the man-child – a hard partying "frat packer" who fights the necessity to grow up even into his thirties. Binge drinking, gross-out high jinks and a sportsman-like attitude towards sex make up the typical character traits and humor of this brand, eventually revealing a disarming sentimental side. After what was surely only a matter of time, the bro-mantic movement puts the moves on the New York theater scene, with Danny O'Connor's strapping and surprising one-man show, Zero. O'Connor's multi-character, inebriated opus succeeds on a lot of levels, just maybe not the ones it intended. Zero examines the remnants of a Texas high school eight years after graduation, where nearly everyone, it seems, has failed to move on. Everyone is still in love with dream girl Mindy McFee, even though they constantly complain about the fight to escape their younger selves. As the characters Leonard and Sam frequently admit (with equal amounts of pride and disgust), they are the "kings" of their town; but in reality, their ambitions are paralyzed by the comfortable, unchanging surroundings. The return of old friend Alex – a soldier coming home from Iraq – shakes up to the status quo on the evening in question.

Zero's script, written by O'Connor and his late brother Robert, is a noteworthy character study, as well an able exercise in dialogue and structure – which is probably a nice way of saying nothing much happens in the story. But it doesn't need to, since lack of ambition and momentum are really the key antagonists here. Alex, Leonard and Sam talk around things in the same circles, they lie or they just goof each other; whatever it takes to keep everyone talking, but not talking about anything important. Otherwise they might actually consider the state of their lives and have to confront their demons. This here-and-back-again dialogue exudes an air of ambivalent disconnect nicely throughout most of the script, but becomes detrimental when the characters are hung up on something for too long. A scene where Alex and Leonard argue over what type of animal is on the Jagermeister bottle seems to last forever, without being funny.

There’s also a larger issue with the comedy, because there are plenty of funny lines and gags, but nothing really plays as "funny". It isn't O'Connor's performance or the characterizations, it isn't the many pop-culture references or the jokes themselves, but something short-circuits the transmission of the goofy stuff – perhaps it is the nature of the one-person-playing-many format, where the crackle of a group's chemistry must rely on one actor's timing and endurance. As a result Sam's over-the-top boisterousness and Leonard's quirky indecisiveness come off like Greek tragic flaws rather than “screwball antics.”

Which brings me to the main point about Zero: though the O’Connor brothers set out to write a comedy about over-aged frat guys partying, via Danny O’Connor’s performance it accidentally becomes a profound survey of the degenerate generation. The characters Alex, Leonard and Sam are so confidently defined through posture and voice that in hindsight they seem to have been played by three different actors entirely. The audience lives with these three characters on stage for most of the play, examining their motivations (or lack thereof) and detecting their every lackluster attempt to bring about that thing we keep hearing so much about these days – change. But the spiritual revolution never comes. It probably won’t ever for these guys. Watching O’Connor’s three main characters swallow that disagreeable tonic in their different ways is concurrently heartbreaking and enlightening.

(There is an entirely unnecessary sub-plot split up over five monologues involving James and Gabe, students from the same high school as the other guys, but from a separate group of friends. In the end, the newly metrosexual Gabe learns a lesson about honor and James gets trampled upon. But first they attend an overly-weird poetry performance by Malthazar that is constructed solely out of pop-culture references and song lyrics. There are funny parts in this, like when lonely James says lackadaisically says “Yay” after blowing out his pity-party birthday candles, but overall this segment failed because James, Gabe and even Malthazar felt like watered-done versions of the three central characters.)

In a monologue halfway through the play, Alex the soldier recounts the events of a raid in Iraq where he was forced to kill an Iraqi. The bar room lights shift to a somber crimson and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” warbles softly in the background. Alex takes shot after shot of Jagermeister, becoming increasingly more inebriated throughout the story, until he is squinty-eyed and speaking in heightened, almost poetic language. "No one day in Iraq is different from the next," he says "they pass like freight cars, the subtle distinguishments lost in the blur of their passing color." This puzzling ritual affects deeply on two levels; first that O’Connor’s late brother and co-writer was a soldier in Iraq, and second that Alex hopes to transform his harrowing experience into a familiar unreal haze with alcohol. His need for a comfortable routine has yielded a chillingly disconnected attitude towards Iraq; "it's easy there," he says. Now Alex, the only character to actually escape the repetitive hometown world of Zero, so desperately wants to return to a life without ambition, difficult decisions and regret that he can build one in the trenches of Iraq.

Where most potty mouthed man-child comedies thrive because of their sizeable hearts, O’Connor’s piece astonishingly blossoms in its heartbreak.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post