It’s easy to slip into cliche when talking about actors “giving” something to an audience.
But at the risk of sounding hopelessly cloying, I can’t write about Terry Lewis in “The Velocity of Gary (Not His Real Name)” without a noisy introductory march down Giving Boulevard.
It isn’t just that Lewis — a longtime Fresno theater performer whose clean-cut characterizations and strong tenor voice have endeared him over the years to local audiences, mostly in family-friendly fare — bares all of his outsides in this one-man show. (No euphemisms this time: We’re talking full-frontal nudity on stage.) For 70 minutes, he does the same thing with his insides as well. He gives a haunting, stirring, funny, subversive and emotionally potent performance.
The story by James Still — which was later made into a movie starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Salma Hayek — is told on stage in a series of vignettes. As the lights go up, we meet the main character, whose name isn’t Gary, of course, curled up in a fetal position. We all start life sans clothes, Not Gary tells us, so it seems a good place for him to start, too. Soon he has pulled on a pair of leopard-print underwear, jeans, a blue tank top, leather jacket and sunglasses — and we’re ready for an account of a hustler’s life.
We meet some of the pivotal characters in Not Gary’s life, ranging from clients (a suave man he dubs the “Italian Suit” turns shockingly violent) to lovers (an ex-porn actor named Valentino and his girlfriend, Mary Carmen, who help form the closest thing Gary has to a family.) When Valentino develops symptoms of AIDS, the storyline is further shaded with darkness. Through it all, Gary is very much a survivor, navigating the harshness of the city with a streetwise swagger.
Allowing us to glimpse through that swagger, to his character’s longing for intimacy and closeness within, is what gives Lewis’ portrayal such power. There are times when his eyes — wide, red, longing — say so much more than the words he speaks, and Herring structures those moments in compelling ways.
In fact, Lewis’ performance and the direction of the show moved me much more than the play itself, which despite the provocative subject matter develops in a mostly conventional way. (Part of this is because the play, set in the early days of the AIDS crisis, is a product of its time, and its themes of drug use, emotional vacancy and destructive behavior among gay men during that era have become familiar and perhaps cliche. Then again, focusing a piece of theater on a big-city hustler or prostitute, no matter his or her sexual orientation, will yield similar results. Let’s just say that between Broadway and Hollywood, this is well-mined subject matter.)
My one technical objection to the performance is the occasional sluggish pacing of the show, particularly when Lewis acts out dialogue between characters. It’s as if he’s too literal in terms of the physical demarcation between Not Gary and Mary Carmen, for example, taking time to shift the angle of his head and the physical space each character occupies onstage, which gives a plodding quality to back-and-forth dialogue. (When portraying the scene with the Italian Suit, Lewis actually makes a significant switch in position each time a new character speaks, which not only drags out the scene but diminishes the impact of the shocking revelation.) It’s frustrating because it feels like the dialogue goes into slow-motion mode.
Still, that’s a minor quibble. “The Velocity of Gary” is an impressive accomplishment for an actor who has pushed himself in many ways. Lewis gives us a gift. It’s an honest and raw performance that makes it a top pick for this year’s Rogue Festival.
SHOW INFO: 8 p.m. Thursday (3/8), 8 p.m. Friday (3/9), 8 and 11 p.m. Saturday (3/10) at The Voice Shop, 1296 N. Wishon Ave. Tickets: $10. Rating: NC-17 (mature subject matter and nudity).