BY D.J.R. BRUCKNER
At the end of “Almost Obscene,” Joe Raiola, having fallen off a chair he had been straddling backward, and raising himself hesitantly from his sprawl, says, “I’m in a mess, and honestly I don’t know the way out.” Having listened to him work himself ever tighter into a logical impasse for almost an hour, you have to admit he is right about his situation.
His one-man show at P.S. 122, produced by the Theatre Within, of which he is the associate director, is part of the New York International Fringe Festival. And it is, to be sure, pretty far out there. In one respect it is a surprisingly effective lesson in the philosophy the Greeks called Cynicism (Diogenes and company). In another it is a ruefully amusing lament for the ineradicable hypocrisy of humanity.
For Mr. Raiola the trouble starts with a paradise where snakes talk. It is no wonder that the inhabitants of such a garden are shackled by the psychological bond called codependency; after all, the God of the Bible is right there, full of rage and telling mortals he is everything and they are nothing. And once they are tossed out of the garden, they have to contend with a bleeding Savior nailed to a cross to sear guilt into children for life.
Religion is only the beginning. If you look around, you find that practically every social convention is hypocrisy: atheists make a rigid religion of unbelief; the news media (and all experts, without exception) are masters of deceit; the gay rights movement and feminism cloak a fierce determination to suppress disagreement; the war on terrorism is no nobler than any of the other savageries celebrated in human history. And so on.
Some of this material is funny; after all, in his offstage job Mr. Raiola is a longtime senior editor of Mad magazine, and his comic instinct is well developed. Much of it is necessarily very old; it is more than 2,400 years since Diogenes’ pupils, in contempt of all rules, performed their most intimate functions in the streets. (“Obscene” means actions that must be kept offstage.) Much of the time Mr. Raiola sounds bitter. But he knows how to let an audience see that anger is only the mask sorrow wears when it goes out in public. It is not just innocence he has lost; it is the possibility of an unblemished life.
After all, even the ancient Cynics, along with their critics, knew from experience that if you carry the rejection of all accepted social values to its natural conclusion, you end up in a mess with no obvious escape route. Mr. Raiola begins “Almost Obscene” wriggling on the floor and recounting an amusing dream of finding ecstasy in sexual union with the earth itself, although he must know very well that that is a religious myth far older than the Bible he sets out to demolish. So when he ends up on the floor sounding a bit hopeless, his honesty is admirable if not uplifting.