Review: "Relapse" is the Recovery Off-Broadway Needs

Relapse: A New Musical

Book and lyrics by J. Giachetti

Music by Louis Josephson

Directed by Joey McKneely

Presented by Gotta Believe Theater Group at Theatre Row

410 W 42nd St., Manhattan, NYC

September 2-23, 2023

Vinny Celerio (as Intrusive), Nicole Lamb (as Intrusive), Mia Cherise Hall (as Melinda), Zummy Mohammed (as Intrusive), and Audree Hedequist (as Intrusive). Photo by Thomas Mundell | @MundellModernPixels

“WebMD has nothing on me.” —Your intrusive thoughts

Recovery and relapse. It is a process and cycle that nearly 21 million people in the U.S. consider themselves to be in. Substance abuse and other psychological conditions that prey on obsessive thoughts and behaviors became a terrifying emergency during the pandemic. Not only did substance abuse and overdoses rise during it, but treatment for these conditions became more difficult to access. Many films, series, books, and other media claim to be the art we need after COVID. Theater was a form that was especially hit hard by the pandemic for obvious reasons. In many ways, Relapse is a show not just about individual recovery but live theater’s recovery. Many were concerned about the survival of Broadway, but the future of Off-Broadway productions was anyone’s guess. Relapse is part of the post-pandemic performance scene that is giving watchers of the sector a lot of hope for its future.
Mia Cherise Hall (as Melinda). Photo by Thomas Mundell | @MundellModernPixels
It is within the context of individual recovery that J. Giachetti (book and lyrics) and Louis Josephson (music and additional lyrics) have set their musical, Relapse. It is a simple show in many ways. Its plot is straightforward and contained. The setting of the show is confined to the group therapy room, except for one scene in a patient’s room. And the action of the show spans one wild group therapy session. The audience is even brought into the setting as the theater announcer's voice is a nurse asking for phones to be silenced, and Dr. Carlisle (Troy Valjean Rucker) steps up first to welcome the audience to the recovery unit. The unity of the action and location allows for more fantastic elements such as what seem like evil spirits that haunt the recovering characters. Called “The Intrusive” (Vinny Celerio, Audrey Hedequist, Nicole Lamb, and Zummy Mohammed) in the show, these characters are personifications of the intrusive thoughts suffered by many in recovery. In the show, they follow and crawl around the recoverers as each speaks in the group session. The Intrusive make for some of the most powerful choral moments, especially in the musical numbers where all characters are at the front of the stage belting out numbers like “Wasteland,” "Taking Back Control,” and “Calm in the Storm” only feet from the audience.

The show’s staging is also quite simple yet effective in that simplicity. Plastic chairs in a semicircle set up to look like a group therapy session are used for most of the show. Translucent currents drape either side. And on one side, a hospital bed can be seen—portending some terrible tragedy in the show. In fact, I said to the person next to me, that bed doesn’t bode well for our characters.
Nicole Lamb (as Intrusive), Vinny Celerio (as Intrusive), Randall Scott Carpenter (as Bryan), and Zummy Mohammed (as Intrusive). Photo by Thomas Mundell | @MundellModernPixels
Relapse is not without predecessor shows that have addressed addiction and recovery. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), Doug Wright’s musical adaptation of Grey Gardens (2006), Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful (2011), Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal (2008), and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen (2015) all deal with recovery and relapse in powerful ways. Relapse is a welcome addition to this grouping. What all of these shows do is question the ethics of the treatment industrial complex, and Relapse is in good company when it does so. In a moving and angering scene, Dr. Carlisle and Nurse Margot (Ashley Alexandra) have an argument over funding and the need to push patients through the program faster. Margot protests, and her retort to Carlisle’s insistence on quicker treatment is a beautiful defense of the individual in the face of those profiting off their recovery.
 
The inciting incident in the show is Bryan (Randall Scott Carpenter) telling the recovery group that he will be leaving the program. The announcement causes a lot of anger from the other patients, who are either upset that his leaving will throw off the group dynamic or that he is getting out and they aren’t. A particularly funny line is delivered by Kendra (Becca Suskauer). When Bryan tells her that recovery is not a race, she shoots back, “Says the guy in the lead.” Newcomer to the group Adam (Jacob Ryan Smith) is quite angry at being in the group, but as the show progresses, he bonds with Bryan, and they both deliver a beautiful, quiet number “To Be a Man.” The most painful performance to watch is Melinda (Mia Cherise Hall). We are introduced to Melinda, whose wrists are bandaged throughout the show, as she doubts her sanity throughout and is tormented by The Intrusive much more than other characters are. She does reach some resolution to this torment, but Hall brings you into the pain and confusion of recovery through her performance.
Vinny Celerio (as Intrusive), Nicole Lamb (as Intrusive), Zummy Mohammed (as Intrusive), and Audree Hedequist (as Intrusive). Photo by Thomas Mundell | @MundellModernPixels
I get that “relapse” makes for a much catchier title than “recovery.” Certainly, some of the characters have dealt with the pain of the recovery/relapse cycle. But none of them relapse in the show, and the closing song is all about the hope and community found in recovery. Maybe Giachetti and Josephson could collaborate on a follow-up. I would certainly be there for it. We need all forms of art to address treatment and recovery in funny, sexy, and meaningful ways. And Relapse does so beautifully. There is much said and sung about what freedom looks like for the recovering characters, and the show’s resolution lays out what that could look like for each individual character. And that is the show’s most powerful punch. It's a reflection on freedom not just from substances and obsessive behaviors but, most powerfully, the institutional powers that interrupt, profit from, and even intentionally subvert recovery. It is fitting that the penultimate song is titled, “Taking Back Control.”

-Joseph L. V. Donica

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