Nicky Silver satire can be a lot like a supercharged pinball machine in desperate need of a therapist. With all balls in play at once -- caroming off each other insanely, setting off clanging bells and flashing lights -- and systems overloading by the second, it's only a matter of time before steam starts gushing out of the thing and "Tilt" appears in bold blinking letters on the display. You can often end up with your sides hurting from laughter.
Odds are you won't experience such a welcome ache upon seeing "The Altruists," Silver's polemical 2000 farce that, unfortunately, has one little glib thing to say and, for 90 intermissionless minutes, says it and says it and says it. But Catalyst Theater Company's astutely clever production offers more proof that this still relatively new small company is one to watch.
Silver specializes in the New York neurotic, particularly the gay male variety, but in "The Altruists" he extends the type to both sexes and pretty much all forms of sexual preference. It seems Sydney (Allyson Currin), who gets furious when introduced as "just an actress," has shot her live-in boyfriend, Ethan (Jason Lott), who has allowed Sydney to support him because it affords him the opportunity to protest everything he thinks is evil -- including the values that are putting a roof over his deadbeat head. He's also morally opposed to monogamy and so sleeps with just about any woman he can, though he's neglected to inform Sydney of this belief.
Having pumped three bullets into what she thinks is Ethan sleeping beneath bedcovers, Sydney races for help to her brother Ronald (Jesse Terrill), but he's busy with his latest cause -- reforming Lance (Scott Kerns), the hustler he brought home the previous night, has fallen in love with and wants to marry. Lance's insistence on being paid for services rendered -- plus a tip, in the form of dope -- only endears him more to Ronald, who proclaims that he just loves a cause, while in the next breath lamenting that "devoting one's life to others is so depressing."
Meanwhile, Sydney and Ronald's ostensibly lesbian friend Cybil (Eva Salvetti), who protests so many things she can't remember what she's protesting today, is worried that, among other things, she doesn't have enough black friends. And if you're thinking a perfectly healthy Ethan shows up about now, you'd be right.
So whom did Sydney shoot? And what to do about it?
Not a bad dramatic hook, except that Silver uses it as an excuse to slash cartoon targets rather than satirize human foibles. Near the beginning, hung-over Sydney casts off the guilt Ethan has made her feel about owning a fur coat and Ralph Lauren sheets and denounces him and his fellow lefty do-gooders as a bunch of sponging hypocrites. This being Silver, however, she continuously fears that maybe she should feel guilty. But the author repeatedly makes it clear that Sydney's an idiot to feel guilty because the do-gooders are actually worse than sponging hypocrites -- the point the playwright can't stop flogging.
In his best work -- "The Food Chain" comes to mind -- Silver writes manic characters that ping in all directions but are shackled to a recognizable need or desire. They can run only so far until the chain goes taut, and they fall flat on their faces. You laugh at them, but you also feel for them. Not in "The Altruists," which amounts to an overly extended "Saturday Night Live" skit.
Still, Silver can be savagely funny, and his facility for rapid-fire dialogue that can nail even the smallest irony or absurdity is breathtaking. Director Christopher Janson concentrates on these strengths, pacing the action in perfect time with Silver's frenetic wit; he also handily orchestrates scores of little gestures and movements from his cast that mirror every schizoid turn in the dialogue.
As Sydney, Currin goes from wide-eyed wonderment to bitter railing to consuming self-pity as easily -- and quickly, it seems -- as she inhales. Another good portrayal is Salvetti's belligerently self-absorbed Cybil. Terrill, however, may be the standout in that he's convincing as a stubbornly naive man who eventually has to commit a horrible betrayal. Silver, in other words, almost wrote a real human complication into his bitchy screed against phony liberalism.
The Altruists, by Nicky Silver. Directed by Christopher Janson. Set by Eric Lichtfuss; sound, Maya I. Robinson; lights, John P. Woodey; costumes, Rhonda Key. Approximately 90 minutes. Through June 19 at Catalyst Theater, in residence at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 1-800-494-TIXS or visit www.catalysttheater.com.