Urban do-gooders and their pet causes — the saving of whales and rain forests and civil rights — are Nicky Silver’s pet peeves in his latest play, “The Altruists,” a typical slice of the playwright’s comic savagery receiving a highly caffeinated production from director David Warren at Silver’s Gotham home base, the Vineyard Theater.
The playwright wields his wit like a scalpel here, shrilly shredding the poses, pieties and pretensions of the politically correct with a ferociousness that can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Until its dismaying belly-flop in the final minutes, “The Altruists” is exceedingly funny as it examines the contradictory impulses warring in the hearts of a handful of young New Yorkers. Flawed, yes, but written with the florid theatricality and seething emotional adrenaline that are the hallmarks of Silver’s unique voice, “The Altruists” is also a great vehicle for the equally distinctive talents of Veanne Cox.
The play opens with a monologue from Ronald (Joey Slotnick), a familiar Silver archetype, the desperately needy gay man. Ronald grew up in white affluence and has been trying to make amends ever since by devoting his life to the less fortunate — even if it means living in a really small apartment. Played by Slotnick with wide-eyed, golly-gee enthusiasm and a tinge of mental instability, Ronald is still naive enough to be surprised that his new soul mate Lance (Eddie Cahill) — formerly known as last night’s pickup — is actually a prostitute who expects to be remunerated for his time. Hardly mortified, Ronald snatches a moral victory from the jaws of humiliation: “A wayward child! A lost soul,” he exults. “This is so exciting! I love a project!”
But rehabilitating Lance isn’t the only cause that falls unbidden into Ronald’s lap. No sooner has he convinced this handsome brunette, whose blue eyes are easily the brightest thing about him, to stay awhile, than his sister Sydney (Veanne Cox) arrives with her own, more urgent problem. It seems she’s just shot her boyfriend.
Playing a character both dressed in and written in shocking pink, Cox keeps the play on an entrancing coffee buzz even when you begin to suspect it’s just going in circles. She’s like a neon exclamation point, flashing rage, arrogance and neurotic agony in equal measures, particularly during her daunting (and overlong) opening aria, aimed at a lump under her Ralph Lauren sheets that she takes to be her boyfriend Ethan. Driven to the breaking point by his condescension (“How do you think I feel when I’m introduced as ‘just’ an actress?”), not to mention the theft of her Louis XIV armoire, sold to fund some unknown PC cause, Sydney snaps, pumping three bullets into the motionless form.
It doesn’t take much sleuthing to figure out that Sydney’s taken out her angst on the wrong victim. Silver’s flair for farce hits its stride when Ethan (Sam Robards) materializes at Ronald’s apartment, clearly without bullet holes and looking to borrow Sydney’s car keys. He’s just come from the bed of Cybil (Kali Rocha), a vigilant lesbian activist who’s much better at being vigilant than lesbian or activist.
From here, however, the play begins a gradual decline, ending in a nose-dive in the final minutes, as Silver closes a dark but ebullient comedy with a wrong-headed attempt at something pitch black. The leaden irony Silver sends us home with is essentially just a more bleak version of a point he’d been making more entertainingly for the last hour: Hearts that bleed for minks and whales can be stone-cold when it comes to human beings.
Up until that downer of an ending, which demands something more somber, Warren’s direction has great rhythm, blending speedy cinematic cross-cutting with fever-pitch performances. The play zips along dizzily on Neil Patel’s accurately detailed set, a triptych of Gotham apartments moving down the economic scale from Sydney’s haute bourgeois boudoir to Cybil’s low grunge loft. John Gromada’s sound design makes nifty use of a bell that signals the close of action in one apartment as it takes off in the next, sometimes flipping back and forth between two scenes within seconds.
But most of the energy in this high-voltage production comes from the combustible combination of Silver’s unique rhetorical gifts with the talents of an expertly assembled cast. Silver’s characters are more savage, on occasion, than beasts in the jungle. But they’re always desperately human, pouring out the bitternesses of their flustered hearts in wayward torrents of words. Cox, with her crisp elocution, hypersensitive air and innate vulnerability, is tailor-made for Silver’s comic universe. She’s one long, skinny, exposed nerve.