Actor Steven Strafford showed up in Chicago a la Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street”: young, talented andbursting with showbiz dreams of making it in the big city.An insecure, 22-year-old virgin (“technically”) when he got here in 2000, Strafford arrived with an enviable tenor and a wit as sharp as a Sweeney Todd’s razor. He started getting noticed quicker than it takes to deep-fry a Twinkie.
Alas, it took very little time before he went from chorine-on-the-come-up to holed up in squalor, fending off the feral cats that bit and peed on him, a needle the size of a thermometer dangling off his arm. From there he did what he always did. Pulled out the rig and went out trawling for more meth. And, ideally, an orgy or at least a thruple. Then, as he tells it in his bravura one-man show “Methtacular,” things got really bad.
When: Through April 4
Where: Via stream. The 16th Street Theater show was recorded at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater. Live talkbacks with Steven Strafford take place via Zoom at 9:15 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.
Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission
However. As Strafford’sundeniably hilarious mini-musicale makes clear, showtunes (plus the love of an extraordinary mother) kept a flicker of Strafford’s best self intact, even as his body and mind were ravaged by drugs and thousands of sexual encounters, melting away like a cake left in the rain.
Written by Strafford and directed by Adam Fitzgerald, “Methtacular” (which 16th Street Theater is streaming for ticket holders) is an unusual and riveting beast. It works well on a small screen, in part because it’s a hyperintimate show. The stage is mostly bare but for Strafford. There are no epic vistas to capture, no elaborate sets writ small.
Many one-person shows written by and starring the same one person are therapy sessions masquerading as theater. This is not that. “Methtacular” is gruesome, laugh-out-loud funny and riddled with original songs that Strafford delivers with barnburner vocals and copious charm. He’s unsparingly forthright, sparing few details of a life with one primary aim: Find men who could finance his meth habit, and do whatever it took to make them do so.
His tale of addiction and recovery is a tale as old as time. But his telling is fresh, wince-inducingly honest (if you’re unfamiliar with the early-Aughts bathhouse culture, “Methtacular” is nothing if not educational) and refreshingly minus the false if-I-can-do-it-anyone-can! Pollyanna platitudes that inform many tales of recovery.
Late in the song-filled show (excellently supported by pianist William TN Hall), Strafford looks dead-on at the audience. He says he doesn’t know why he recovered, that there is no formula for doing so. It’s a bracing, wonderstruck moment. The world is awash in 12-step meetings and treatment options, but as any doctor worth her salt will tell you, nobody has a cure. Strafford makes it plain: He was inexplicably fortunate, despite himself.
Consider: Strafford was fired from a well-paying gig after calling in sick so he could continue a weekend of meth and bondage in a bathhouse with dungeon capabilities. He was tied to a cross-like device (that he explains in fascinating detail) when the artistic director of the theater where he was supposed to be working wandered by. “I was fired, naked in a bathhouse, tied to a cross,” he relates. The anecdote is one of several juicy blind items, research projects for another day.
As Strafford’s tale unfolds, he makes it rather astoundingly easy to understand why he was willing to lie, steal, abuse his best friends and live in the depths. His descriptions of being high are crystal clear: On meth, the world is perfect. He is perfect. On meth — even while being attacked by cats or fired in a dungeon — the current moment is the single most precious thing in the universe and heis at the white-hot center of it. When Strafford talks about how the meth made him feel, the question is no longer why is he doing this to himself but how could anyone voluntarily give this feeling up?
The first time he does meth is during a botched attempt to lose his virginity. It’s sad and humiliating but he’s euphoric afterward, walking home at dawn. “I could see the light hitting the dew on the cars. I could smell bread baking. It was like the opening scene of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ”
Speaking of. Strafford’s original musical numbers draw on everything from “The Way We Were” to “The Wizard of Oz.” His ability to weave standard showtune tropes into songs of (for example) being “second wife” to a drug dealer in a LTR with an asexual Greek Orthodox priest is impressive.
Throughout, Strafford’s mother shows up in moving video snippets — first when he goes missing for two days shortly after arriving in Chicago, later when he comes home for a baptism and then vanishes again, finally when she resorts to granite-tough love after her son takes an HIV test.
Here’s something to consider: Strafford’s been down some of the darkest roads imaginable. He’s still here. Let’s all take that in.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.