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True Believer

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Kersti Bryan
Photo by Pavel Ezrohi

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is frequently associated with war-torn military personnel or victims of terrorism, but it can lay equal devastation to those who only bear witness. Such is the case with the young New York journalist whose story is the focus of playwright Asa Merritt's dramatic solo work, True Believer, now on view at the intimate studio space at TheaterLab.

The 60-minute monologue features Kersti Bryan as the journalist, who, upon hearing of the populist protests of the Arab Spring —notably an incident of self-immolation —decides she must travel to Egypt to see for herself what it is that drives people to such extremes.

After a surprise visit to her family in Illinois ("No, I didn't get engaged") to announce her plans, she's off to Cairo. She envisions herself in the Ernest Hemingway mode, needing to go directly to the source to find the story. At first, she assumes the detached journalist's mode that she was taught in school, and winds up writing a 5,000-word essay, a "really awesome article" she believes will open the world's eyes to the mix of corruption, repression, and violence that has led to the uprisings. But on her return to New York, she finds the world is not all that interested, and her editors merely praise her for her "clean prose."

As with many veterans of the war zone, she finds life back at home to be empty of meaning, and so she goes back and digs even more deeply. This time, she gathers enough material to write a book, returns home, and pours herself into her writing. But no publisher will touch it (the floor of the studio theater is strewn with papers, representing her output, as well as the many rejection letters she receives).

Eventually, however, someone does reach out to her, a woman named Sam who convinces her to become part of an underground revolutionary group calling itself "Insomnia." The members are dedicated to turning the U.S. into a truly democratic society by whatever disruptive means they deem necessary. The rest of the play deals with the journalist's involvement with the group, a growing romantic relationship with Sam, and her own struggles with self-identity and the values she grew up with.

While True Believer, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody and accompanied with original music by Bay Bryan, is not a site-specific work, it benefits from being performed in the small studio, where the audience and the actress are no more than a few feet apart. Kersti Bryan gives a powerful performance, mostly quiet and low-keyed, but increasingly disturbing, as she looks the audience members in the eye. There's a disconcerting moment where she grabs a broom and sweeps all of the papers into a pile in front of the room's only door, so that we briefly feel trapped with her as she rides on an unstoppable downward spiral whose conclusion, while not entire predictable in its specifics, is inevitable.

True Believer
Through May 9
Theaterlab, 357 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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