The Stranger’s “Last Days” columnist, David Schmader, is morbidly fascinated by “found” comedy: those moments in life where things go so cosmically awry that the only possible response is laughter. In his new solo play, A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem, which opened Jan. 20 at Seattle’s writing haven, Richard Hugo House, Schmader delves into the decade-long period when he attempted to mitigate the emotional damage from his HIV diagnosis by indulging his eclectic and idiosyncratic sense of humor.
Directed by fellow Stranger alum Matthew Richter, the hour-and-a-half piece moves from the blackest of black comedy to the low humor of the YouTube generation to the kind of laughter that only comes when hope has been glimpsed in the midst of utter despair. The opening of the piece stalls right out of the gates, however, when a bespectacled man walks on stage without identifying himself and abruptly begins talking about David Lynch, Blue Velvet and the advent of the video of Eraserhead. The house lights remain up the whole time.
After wondering if this is director Richter or a Hugo House employee providing an unorthodox introduction to Schmader, realization gradually dawns that this is, in fact, Schmader and the show has indeed started. His segue from the oeuvre of Lynch to a stock spiel about 9/11 and how it changed everything, delivered seated at a desk in self-conscious imitation of monologist Spalding Gray, seems to bode ill. But when he finally gets personal about 15 minutes in, the entire tone of the play changes and Schmader finds his voice.
Right around Sept. 11, 2001, Schmader learned firsthand what it means to live each day as if it were your last. “All at once, this existential gauntlet was thrown down to America,” he recalls. While the War on Terror was being waged, he and thousands of others around the country self-medicated with escapist reality TV and viral YouTube videos. “Before Abu Ghraib, there was no need for Tila Tequila,” he says.
What started as a casual opiate became a full-blown addiction for Schmader just after he met his now-husband, Jake. Following a cute 1950s style courtship — phone calls, mix tapes, and making out in cars — Schmader received a positive diagnosis during a routine HIV test. “Productive introspection was out of the question. … At the end of the day, Jake was still there,” he says, but his self-esteem no longer was.
Unable to deal with his terminal illness, he and Jake created a virtual "comedy bunker" to shelter themselves from reality. As the couple pulled away from their friends and family, their world grew smaller and smaller, until repeatedly watching a 38 second video of a woman dancing to a Beyoncé song while wearing a grotesque clown mask evolved from an opportunity for witty scorn into a compulsive fixation.
Interwoven with video clips from unintentionally hilarious local newscasts, cringe-worthy children’s beauty pageant footage, and the epically awful film, Showgirls, A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem sucks the audience into Schmader’s interior world, where his ego may be wrecked but his sense of humor is unabated. The language is irreverent, the themes range from religious intolerance to bullying to the death of children, yet the piece is contagiously funny.
Schmader manages to strike a precarious balance between the essentially mean-spirited glee he takes in laughing at others as they screw up big time on video and his unending self-recrimination for contracting a disease that he knew how to prevent. By wallowing in schadenfreude, Schmader eventually learns to forgive the failings of others and, finally, of himself.
His previous solo plays are equally personal: “Letter to Axl” deals with how he came out, and “Straight” addresses Christian groups who encourage homosexuals to go hetero by “praying the gay away.” Structured as a series of performed essays, A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem challenges Schmader to engage the audience without seeming didactic.
The minimalist set — just a desk and chair, a generic department store rug, and a small projection screen — provides a lecture hall atmosphere that could have killed Schmader’s quest to move beyond mocking and moralizing to lay bare his private heartbreak. Fortunately, Richter’s direction keeps the pace lively without glossing over the darker moments.
Ultimately, A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem, which was commissioned by Hugo House, is Schmader’s final step out of his disease-induced depression. It’s a work, he tells the audience, that he didn’t want to have to write; 10,000 words that offer a sort of catharsis that he never desired. “I wanted to appreciate life without the crushing diagnosis,” he concludes.
If you go: A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem runs Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 4 at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. For more information, visit www.hugohouse.org.