Star Power

Mark Lundholm is a terrific performer. He holds your attention effortlessly. He's vital, funny and charming, and he also communicates strong emotion, moving freely from anguish to laughter and back again. (If anyone wants to excerpt this review for publicity purposes, this is where to stop.) But even though Lundholm is its sole creator, Addicted isn't worthy of him.

The show begins promisingly -- at least after a rather patronizing warning that we might find some of what's to come offensive -- as Lundholm tells us the story of his life. He manages to communicate the full awfulness of his childhood while simultaneously making us howl with laughter, and there are lots of great one-liners: "My dad is so homophobic he won't eat a hot dog." The tale of Lundholm's journey from twitchy, tormented, hyperactive kid ("Ritalin boy") to petty criminal and ultimately drug-sodden and suicidal bum is mesmerizing. But even here, despite the swiftness of the narration, he pauses for annoying little homilies.

He's walking a line -- presenting himself as the classic bad boy, tough, even frightening, then reassuring us with his quick, self-deprecating laugh. For much of the evening, I couldn't decide if the self-revelations were brave or exploitative, whether Lundholm was confiding in us or playing us, expressing self-knowledge or self-pity. During the first act, it didn't seem to matter. Whether I was mentally arguing with him or agreeing, moved or amused, I gladly gave Lundholm my fascinated attention. That's how charismatic a performer he is and how close to the bone he can strike.

By the second act, he's sober. And reformed addicts, as he himself points out in a riff on "recovery people," are often self-righteous bores. Lundholm repeats himself, indulges in psychobabble, offers banal assertions that everything can be an addiction -- from e-mail to coffee, work to working out. Having gone to some pains to create a distinct line between addicts and healthy people in Act One, Lundholm blurs the distinction here. But neither version seemed particularly revealing to me, and by the end of the evening, I didn't feel I understood addiction any better than I had before. Addicted had morphed into the kind of presentation you'd see during the Saturday lunch break at a therapists' convention.

Except that the second act is still punctuated by flashes of pure dramatic brilliance, as when Lundholm describes preparing to rob a liquor store and pulling the ski mask down over his face the wrong way, so that he's looking out of one eye hole and the clerk can't understand his barked orders. Or his imitation of a drugged-out heroin addict trying to smile. Best of all is the incredible moment when he finds himself sobbing on the bosom of a 300-pound black woman, ruining her cherished new coat with snot and tears. It's great theater -- risk-taking, funny, tender, original and profound. So why go on to remind us of what that coat meant to the woman, and her generosity in overlooking the damage (we got that), and to tell us that he still thinks about her?

You'd search a long time for a motivational speaker as talented as Lundholm. But this was meant to be a theatrical event, not a motivational speech. Lundholm talks a lot about tools, and his are fantastic. I'm glad he's using them to try to help other addicts. However, the show seemed more intended to reassure us, the great smug middle class -- to reaffirm not only our sense of rightness but, oddly, even our sense of distance from the severely damaged. "I don't give money to homeless people," Lundholm intones -- as if no one sober and hardworking had ever been forced onto the streets -- and the man behind me murmurs, "I like that."

"The difference between a good habit and an addiction is motive," Lundholm suggests. So is the difference between manipulation and art.