Although The Altruists premiered off-Broadway in 2000, author Nicky Silver's unpretentious, politically-incorrect tale of well-meaning radicals seems more relevant than ever in this time of tea baggers and powerful pundits.
Ronald, Ethan, and Cybil are three naïve humanitarians who protest something different every day: arms funding, school and welfare cutbacks, drunk driving, and other moral outrages. They aim to help those who struggle to help themselves — but they're the ones who really need a guiding hand.
When Ronald's sister Sydney thinks she's murdered her boyfriend, she turns to the group to protect her. She's the one cause they don't want to back, but she's rich and they realize that her money could help a lot of needy people. So they set up dumb hunk Lance as the fall guy, which would be the smart thing to do if he wasn't the love of Ronald's life. Meanwhile the do-gooders are trying to get to a protest, although they can't remember what it's for.
"This play is one of funniest things I've ever read," says director Robbie Thomas. "It's written by a bad-boy playwright who just says things and knocks you down. It's like an episode of Seinfeld on speed — it never stops." Thomas also directed Frost/Nixon at the Footlights last year. He says that The Altruists is something "completely different."
Although the script calls for actors in their late 20s and early 30s, Thomas decided to use a younger cast, which makes sense considering the shallowness of these social crusaders. Going older was "not the vision I wanted to portray," says Thomas. Instead he chose thesps in their early to mid-20s who are studying at the College of Charleston or have recently graduated. They all know each other, which helps with the on-stage chemistry, and Thomas has worked with most of them before.
"In high school, Charley Boyd was my friend's annoying little sister," he says. "She graduated from college last year and she's become a pretty darn good actor. Her part of Sydney is so wordy — she starts the play off with a five page monologue with nobody else there."
Jesse Budi plays Ronald the social worker. "Jesse always seems to make choices that I would never think of," Thomas says. "I honestly don't know if any actor should make such off-the-wall choices, but they work for him. He's incredibly funny."
The cast is rounded out by Will Haden as Ethan, Emily McKay as Cybil, and Nick Smithson as Lance. Concerning Smithson, Thomas says, "He has a great quirky talent."
Critics have accused The Altruists of being a simplistic string of gags made at the expense of overzealous political agitators, an hour-and-a-half rant against thoughtless campaigners. But Silver acknowledges that his targets are soft, insisting that these dangerous dimwits need to be satirized anyway. The playwright focuses on entertaining his audience rather than preaching an alternative to protesting for its own sake.
The age of the cast emphasizes another theme: the moral malleability of the young, eager to make a difference but not mature enough to consider a point of view that doesn't appeal to them.
"The main message appears in the last five minutes," Thomas says. "It's a really powerful message about hypocrisy, where doing the right thing isn't always the right thing."
At its core, the play is about avoiding hypocrisy by making sure you know all the facts before you embark on a crusade. Thomas adds, "It's about standing up for what's right but making sure it's right. I definitely want people to come away with that."