By Hephzibah Dutt
Nothing could have prepared me for the intriguing performers who delivered 55 Minutes Of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation. I had read the show description, registered the art on the posters (reference below for your convenience), took the title seriously and braced myself for nearly an hour of awkward improv on sex, drugs and the possibility of being dragged on stage…only to have so many assumptions thrown back in my face. I won’t admit to who I imagined would unabashedly tell tales of sex and drugs. It definitely wasn’t two …um…gracefully-aged gentlemen, garbed in grey blazers and jeans. Over the course of the promised 55 minutes, they would in turns charm, horrify, entertain, and of course, make us cringe and squirm.
Let this be a lesson to us all: Anyone can tell dirty stories. But not everyone can tell them as poetically as Howard Lieberman or spin them as hilariously terrifying fantasies like Loren Niemi.
Lieberman and Niemi begin with an assurance of stories: “some of them are naughty, some are very naughty…and some are…so f***ing naughty,” but all of them are, they insist, completely true. This story-show is partly improv with, as the title threatens (or promises), audience participation. The fishbowl of story-prompts goes around the room, and when the music stops the poor (or lucky) soul holding the bowl joins the tellers on stage. There, they are welcomed to interrupt the teller with questions, OR (usually unwittingly) become characters in the story being told. Given the nature of the show, the latter option offers laughable and daunting possibilities.
A large part of the entertainment value of this show is to see such drastically different tellers operate in tandem, for Lieberman and Neimi are vastly different in every way: their appearance, vocal qualities, physicalities, and storytelling style. Neimi’s large stature and grizzled voice resounds through the room; Lieberman is willowy, seething with a quiet, enigmatic energy. (Indeed, the Buffalo Room at the Westport Flea Market proved too large for Leiberman’s mellifluous voice; projection or amplification is definitely in order).
The seeming impossibility of improv plus a completely true story is soon resolved: The stories have all been told before; the fishbowl prompts trigger and shape them in a myriad of ways—that’s where the improv aspect shapes this performance. And these two gentlemen are full of naughty stories, of strange encounters—terrifying, sad, sexy, foolish, dangerous, licentious, and…utterly human. So full are they of stories that it occurs to me that to call this improv is cheating…and I’m delighted they do. The audience members who have the dubious privilege of joining them on stage often felt extraneous to the telling. Leiberman does employ the tactic of occasionally placing the audience member in his stories, switching from third person to second as he looks deep into their face, and describes the intricate, sultry or cringe-worthy deeds of the other, but for the most part, this aspect could be developed further (hopefully, without mortifying the guest).
In their lives and from their telling, it becomes clear how stories of “sex and drugs” can acquire different tones, some of which are utterly tragic and sad, others hilarious and restorative. Also apparent and cleverly rendered is the way in which self-created fantasies and illusions are an intergral part of “completely true stories.”
This show is not for everyone; the title contains all the necessary disclaimers. Definitely rated R, definitely shocking and surprisingly, but also sweet and sad. You will not see the same show I saw, but you witness two men take secret stories, the kind most of us hide away, and expose them to the world– for laughter, to be marveled at, pondered upon, even to critique. Indeed, the depth of intimacy, honesty (and sheer awkwardness) Lieberman and Neimi entrust to their audience makes this show feel like a confession— albeit one without the contrition.