Is Spencer Aste a hardworking actor who sold and used drugs or a devoted drug dealer who acted on the side?
That becomes the central question in his one-man show, Wake Up, at the Axis Theatre in Greenwich Village. It is an important question because his double life nearly tore him apart both spiritually and physically.
Wake Up unfolds on Jon McCormick’s comfortable apartment set representing Aste’s New York City home. Aste begins, perhaps too enthusiastically, wondering why he’s doing a show about himself and not acting a character in a play, his usual métier. He hints at things to come.
Stripping away the details that keep Wake Up constantly involving, the facts of his life are kind of simple: Born in Utah desert town, one of three brothers in a very straight Mormon family, he was taught that there were no gay Mormons, although he knew differently.
An early flirtation with the stage led inevitably to a career as an actor. Two university degrees under his belt, he arrived in NYC after spending time on the West Coast. Finding himself in the midst of a blizzard, he reveled in all that NYC offered. Eventually he took a waitering job and, auspiciously met the love of his life, Erik, a bartender.
Erik moves in with him and Aste establishes a happy home that soon is invaded by Tina, Aste’s name for one of the drugs he used and sold.
He is offered a decent acting job in a touring troupe where he cut his professional teeth. After two seasons with this company, whose tours all ended in Off Broadway runs, he is offered the leads in Shakespeare’s Richard III and an Edgar Allen Poe biographical play as the lead character: two heavy-duty leads to learn in eighteen months!
This is where Tina rears its ugly head. Without it, he cannot learn these two massive parts; with it, he cannot learn these two massive parts. He exalts in this relationship more than his partnership with the very patient Erik.
The drug dealing expands. Using clever gimmicks involving hiding drug shipments in shoes, he builds his illegal activities into a six-figure business, displaying hallucinations and paranoia. He also cheats on Erik.
What doesn’t happen is memorizing his parts for his fast-approaching tour.
Aste gets caught in a downward spiral of drug abuse, missed performances, anonymous sex and, eventually, legal problems that become quite serious.
All this forces him to reassess his life. He decides to change businesses in a sweet way. He also takes charge of his health, walking and playing tennis.
The play shifts gears and turns into memories of his youth and then of a more recent event that helped him realign his priorities.
Aste writes and acts with great wit, bringing the audience along with the twists and turns of his checkered life and loves. He mostly plays himself, but shifts quickly to other characters like his effete director, Erik, a Mormon priest and others.
David Zeffren’s lighting and Paul Carbonara’s music and sound score give mood and specificity to Wake Up.
Spencer Aste’s tale of drug addiction and opening up to a well-lived gay and artistic life is told with vigor thanks to his astute writing and the contributions of his director, Maegan Simpson.
Wake Up (through June 24, 2023)
Axis Theatre, One Sheridan Square, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.wakeuptheplay.com
Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission