I am the victim of a sick society,” says an ex-con and panhandler at the beginning of Firehouse Theatre's bitterly funny, occasionally unsettling production of “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.” This one-man show uses the significant talents of actor Robert Zukerman to demonstrate the human toll of living in a modern America that, among other things, is drenched in drugs and preoccupied with sex.
But the show's title is a bit of a ruse: The sly script by Eric Bogosian (written in 1990 but nicely contemporized) mostly focuses on the culture of instant gratification that places money above all else. Those who have it, abuse it; those who don't, covet it. And, in Bogosian's view, the grind of the process fills both the haves and the have-nots with rage, which spills out from Zukerman with a bracing exuberance. Whatever else you might think about this show, it's never boring.
During the course of two hours, Zukerman plays 10 different characters, ranging from an emotionally fragile vagrant living on a sandwich every other day to an extravagantly wealthy immigrant boasting about his new pool. He pantomimes an 11th character — lip-synching the sultry voice of a phone-sex worker (provided by an uncredited Jill Bari Steinberg). Between scenes, sound designer Steve Organ leads a tight three-piece combo in growling blues-rock interludes that are loud and rousing.
The first act presents a great smorgasbord of pain, with an archetypical office worker flying into a dizzying tirade after seeing dog poop on the sidewalk and a blasAc, megarich, and culturally clueless rock star hilariously recounting his 10 years of blotto drug abuse. But the centerpiece is the description of an epic bachelor party replete with cocaine, pot, porn and Hell's Angels. The second act is a bit of a letdown after this, with the final two monologues seeming both too similar and too long, beyond being particularly dour.
Zukerman shines throughout, however, and director David Denson highlights the bravura nature of this performance by using rear-projection lighting to show Zukerman's off-stage movements between monologues (both scenic and lighting design are by David McLain). In this way, Zukerman never leaves our sight even as he makes dramatic transformations. The only place where his skills falter are in a brief rap song delivered by a sociopathic prison inmate, his rhyming a little slow, his movements a little too, well, white. He makes up for it, though, in the blistering scene that follows where he aspires to live like God because of the destruction he can afflict.
The phrase “You only live once” echoes throughout this show. It's a motto that inspires these characters along their extravagant and self-destructive journeys, making for a cautionary, but distinctly entertaining, ride.
“Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” plays at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., through May 8. Call 355-2001 or go to firehousetheatre.org for details.