Addiction is a complex thing, frightening and sometimes deadly. Whether the compulsive behavior involves food, sex, alcohol, drugs, hoarding or something else, temporary pleasure often proves a fleeting respite from ongoing pain.
A staple of reality television on such series as "Hoarders" and "My 600-lb Life," dramatically dissected in movies such as "The Lost Weekend" or "Days of Wine and Roses," addiction is no laughing matter. So what playwright-director Michael Leeds achieves in his warm, funny, sobering play "The First Step – Diary of a Sex Addict" at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors is pretty remarkable.
Leeds' play was first done in 2004 at the New York International Fringe Festival, then produced in 2011 at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale. The Carbonell Award-winning director, who has amassed an impressive body of work on and off Broadway, in regional theater and in film, at first attached the pseudonym "Henry Covery" (a riff on "in recovery") to the play. But at Island City, where Leeds is associate artistic director, he's fully claiming his work.
Blending autobiography and invention, Leeds tells the story of Joe (Mike Westrich), a gay guy who will spend 90 minutes detailing the highs, lows and history of his sex addiction. The play begins with a recording of Nat King Cole crooning "Embraceable You" in the darkness (a song that will prove chilling later in the show). Then, the lights come up, and we see Joe casually texting while another guy performs a sex act on him. Sporting a wry smile, Joe looks at the audience and observes that we might think that sort of multitasking is difficult — but we would be wrong.
In Westrich, Leeds has an ideal alter ego, narrator and protagonist. The actor remains sympathetic throughout the show, even when Joe's addiction costs him jobs, family relationships and his first serious partner. Westrich moves easily between the abundant funny material and the painful, sobering realities of Joe's history and compulsion.
Four other actors — Noah Levine, Stephan Pineda, Michael Friedman and Gretchen Porro — play multiple figures in Joe's life. Levine and Porro, experienced and chameleonic performers, are particularly powerful, he as Joe's abusive father, she as Joe's fragile mother, his increasingly angry sister and a married mom whose secret sex addiction is putting all that matters to her at risk. Friedman is a gentle soul as Joe's first true boyfriend, and Pineda becomes the destructive embodiment of Joe's addiction.
Working with Island City's top-notch design team (the simple set is by Michael McClain, lighting by Ardean Landhuis, costumes by Peter Lovello and sound by David Hart), Leeds brings stylistic variation to "The First Step."
There's a "Dating Game" sequence with Porro hosting and playing the contestant, with the others playing a straight guy, a gay guy, a straight sex addict and a gay sex addict, the men giving answers that are amusing and revealing. A rap number reveals the myriad screen names and anything-you-want possibilities of internet-enabled hookups. At an Alcoholics Anonymous-style meeting for sex addicts, the stories are first exaggerated (even funny), then heartbreakingly sad. The scene with Joe as a boy being "soothed" to sleep by his predatory father is simply done and agonizing to watch.
As you might expect, "The First Step" contains all sorts of raw language, simulated sexual situations and some fleeting partial nudity. But as you might not expect, the play becomes the moving, engaging story of one man's journey toward a happier life.
"The First Step – Diary of a Sex Addict" runs through Feb. 11 at Island City Stage, 2034 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 954-519-2533 or go to IslandCityStage.org.