The Alliance Theatre Lab presents Small Membership, written by and Starring Mark Della Ventura. Directed by David Sirois. Lighting Design by Natalie Taveras. Set Design by Jodi Dellaventura.
Actor and playwright Mark Della Ventura has been developing his 75-minute play Small Membership for three years, a long time for a relatively short play. But that’s nothing compared to the time his character Matt has spent obsessing over a cruel trick of physical fate played on him by God or rotten luck or maybe just drawing the short straw, genetically speaking.Matt, you see, is under-endowed. He has also been, for much of his 26 years, pudgy, shy, socially awkward, angry, not quite certain of his sexual orientation and afraid to take a chance on love, physically or emotionally.For Matt, torment is everywhere and unrelenting. There’s the uncle who dubbed his 8-year-old nephew “Fatty Matty,” and much worse. Mom, who assures Matt that “one day you’ll find a nice girl who’ll see you for who you are on the inside.” Alleged “friends,” who would vie for creative ways to put him down, though mostly they settled for that middle-school staple, “gay.”Della Ventura is an easygoing actor who, under the direction of his long-time pal David Michael Sirois, commits fully to each potentially embarrassing twist and turn in Matt’s tale. Moving around the tidy classroom set designed by his sister Jodi (who spells her last name “Dellaventura”), the actor relives different traumatizing or emotionally challenging moments in Matt’s past, with an assist from lighting designer Natalie Taveras.
Matt’s tone and that of the play is wry and witty but underpinned with an unrelenting underground stream of pain, pessimism and sadness. In high school, “my penis was still in middle school.” He prays to God for something larger. Instead, he finds his torso matted with body hair. “I went to bed a baby; I woke up Robin Williams.”No surprise: The play is gleefully brim-full of double entendres, crudities and profanities including virtually every euphemism and slang you’ve ever heard for a penis and scrotum.What rescues all this from running a bit thin or being overly mawkish is the genial persona of Della Ventura under the direction of his long-time collaborator David Michael Sirois, both key members of Alliance’s core company and the bedrock of Alliance’s season of all-original works. With a Stan Laurel squint and grin, Della Ventura once again proves to be adept at portraying affable teddy bears who are intelligent, funny and engaging.But the evening seems as blunted as Matt. Della Ventura’s Matt is droll and moving and vital when he is acting out flashback conversations. His plaintive rendition of “What Kind of Fool Am I” in a karaoke bar is simultaneously poignant and comic.The problem arises in his narration to the self-help group (and us), which makes up half the play. In it, he is so beaten down that it’s hard to adopt him as our surrogate. Matt is pathetic, not in the negative sense, but in the tears of a clown sense. He shambles right through punch lines and lets his voice dwindle off.The only moment that doesn’t work well is the finale. Matt is dealt a devastating blow we won’t reveal. Yet without sufficient explanation, this has empowered him to accept who he is and go forward with a shred of self-acceptance. We really need a little more explanation here to make that credible.Jodi Dellaventura’s setting is a dead-on recreation of those generic classrooms inappropriately repurposed at night as group confessionals. The lighting by Natalie Taveras smoothly switches from the cold light of the classroom to a half-dozen other places in Matt’s mind from a dazzling nightclub to the loneliness of a late-night phone call.In the end, Small Membership succeeds because Della Ventura depicts a nice guy we’d like to have a beer with. We can see more clearly than Matt that his feelings of worthlessness are based on vagaries that are not his fault and are not indicative of what kind of person he is. He has let these irrelevancies blight his life. And, of course, we take comfort in that because we’re struggling with our own perceived shortcomings, physical and otherwise.