“The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder,” promises the Warren Zevon song from which Grant James Varjas’s small, moving 2011 play takes its name. And for some of the denizens of the ancient gay dive bar in which it’s set, Zevon’s lyrics continue to ring true: “Should have done, should have done, we all sigh / Never thought I'd ever be so lonely.”
As the play opens, new bartender Jeffrey (Dominique Worsley) contends with an imperious but endearing regular, Edmund (Troy West), who insists on staying for another round or three beyond last call. From there Varjas jumps forward several years to introduce another pair of customers: the caustic Charles (Doug Vickers), still mourning the loss of his one great love and insisting everyone else should do the same, and Brendan (Layne Manzer), who hardly bothers hiding his coke habit.
Varjas skillfully illustrates the dynamic of equal parts affection and toleration that, speaking as a onetime bartender myself, rang true for the regulars at such an establishment. Shade Murray’s production, in which John Holt’s dead-on set design places us behind the bar with Jeffrey, perfectly evokes the kind of joint in which the entrance of attractive “fresh meat”—here embodied by A Red Orchid ensemble member Steve Haggard—can reframe the focus of the entire room.
Haggard’s Mark, it turns out, is here to meet a blind date, but also has a history with this particular bar despite never having entered its doors. The ties that bind all of these men are perhaps knotted a bit too neatly in Varjas’s construction, but Murray’s staging is buoyed by impeccable performances from a cast that also includes David Cerda and Luce Metrius.
The gay status quo in America has already seen remarkable changes in just the few years since the play’s debut. But Martyr makes a strong case for a spot alongside the likes of The Boys in the Band and Love! Valour! Compassion! as snapshots of a moment in the movement.
A Red Orchid Theatre. By Grant James Varjas. Directed by Shade Murray. With Doug Vickers, Layne Manzer, David Cerda, Dominique Worsley, Troy West, Steve Haggard, Luce Metrius. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.