By Carl Blumenthal
Tyler Clementi, a young gay man, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge a year ago. His alleged tormentors, fellow Rutgers students, are now on trial. So The Heights Players’ production (running the next two weekends) of “The Laramie Project,” about the 1998 murder, in Laramie, Wyoming, of Matthew Shepherd, a gay student at the University of Wyo., could not be more timely.
In fact, the parallels between then and now, there and here, are eerie, even though Clementi ’s classmates did not lay a finger on him. To mention a few similarities, in both cases the victims’ own peers ganged up on them and the outpouring of support for both Shepherd and Clementi was national in scope.
“The Laramie Project” strikes a balance between documentary and activism. Beginning shortly after Matthew Shepard’s death, Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York City to Laramie six times over 18 months, conducting more than 200 interviews with townspeople about the murder and the trial that followed.
But Kaufman and his colleagues were not content to reconstruct events based on “the facts.” To account for their own involvement, they wrote themselves into the script as interviewers. Thus, each of the original eight actors in 2000 played him or herself and multiple Laramie residents — a total of more than 60 roles. Subsequent interpreters of “The Laramie Project,” including The Heights Players, have had to assume the personas of those eight Tectonic Theater members.
If this profusion of characters weren’t challenging enough for the actors and the audience, the play does not always proceed in chronological order. Instead, it relies on the actors to interchangeably play a narrator, who identifies Laramie residents by name and sets the scenes (or “moments”) by theme. The first act builds slowly as the Tectonic Theater members get the lay of the land. Gradually they learn of the events leading to the discovery of Matthew’s body, beaten to a pulp and tied to a fence on the outskirts of town.
The Heights Players also get off to a slow start, with some awkwardness of portrayals and fumbling of lines. Director Robert Weinstein seems torn between the play’s minimal stage directions and a desire to better differentiate the many characters through costume changes and regional accents (which sound more Southern than Western). Sometimes the identifying drawls help, but sometimes they add nothing to the already colloquial speech that defines Laramie’s residents.
Act 2 is framed around the six days Matthew spent in the hospital before he died. As bulletins about his ultimately fatal condition are interwoven with the opinions of those for, against or ambivalent about him, “The Laramie Project” reaches a crescendo. The act ends with a moment entitled “H-O-P-E,” in which a character muses that Matthew would not want the death penalty for his assailants.
The final act extends from Matthew’s funeral through the trial of the two murderers. Although it concludes with a grudging plea by Matthew’s father for mercy for the young man who beat up his son, Act 3 is to some degree anti-climactic. The audience feels this, in part, because the play is two and a half hours long.
The other reason for this feeling is that the Tectonic Theater Project’s goal for the third act, if not the whole play, seems to be understanding, not just catharsis. Moises Kaufman and his troupe went to great lengths (pun intended) to present a balanced view of the people, place and events, even though their sympathies are clear. For instance, while Matthew may have flaunted his homosexuality, his killers seemed to resent his class privileges as well.
To their credit, The Heights Players’ cast builds energy as the play goes on. Each of the eight actors fully inhabits at least one of his or her many roles rather than just wearing them like a change of clothes.
Alex Amarosa takes on some of the biggest parts and is especially good as a crusading priest (in support of Matthew). Amber Bloom’s Baptist minister is full of doom and gloom. Jill Balstridge stands her ground, whether as a Muslim student or the landlady of one of the murderers.
Christopher Homer goes for the vernacular as a limousine driver and bartender. Kristem Keim is best as Matthew’s lesbian friend who orchestrates a counter-demonstration against the gay-bashing Rev. Fred Phelps.
David Lamberton offers soul-searching performances as an older gay man and Matthew’s father. Dov Lebowitz-Nowak gives his all to the part of a jejune theater student. And in the most outstanding portrayal, Rachel Muney fills the boots of the officer who finds Matthew on the fence and is exposed to the AIDS virus he carries.
The Heights Players are at 42 Willow Place. “The Laramie Project” will be performed March 9, 10, 16 and 17 at 8 p.m.; March 11 and 18 at 2 p.m. Adults: $15, seniors: $13. Call (718) 237-2752 for reservations.