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Mainlining A Broken Life 

Classic songs weave through cautionary drug tale

If you've watched cabaret, musical or operatic performances with any degree of regularity and perceptiveness, you've probably noticed that there's a certain amount of pacing involved in the artistry. Opera divas simply cannot pump out high-energy arias at peak volume at the upper reaches of their vocal range for two to five hours. Cabaret spellbinders vary the mood and tempo, rest up between sets and intersperse individual songs with intimate patter and frequent slurps of beverage. The METHod to My MADness is so compelling. Foster torches one song after another for just over 50 minutes, largely disregarding the niceties of pacing. In the process, he compulsively engorges a wide range of fine composers and lyricists, twisting them by force into the shape of a narrative chronicling his addiction to crystal methamphetamine.

Cole Porter certainly heard of cocaine. Very likely, William Finn and Stephen Sondheim know as much about New York's gay club scene as Foster. Or more.

But none of them has delved into the history of crystal meth. Nor can they take us on Foster's harrowing journey through addiction, male escorting, unprotected gay sex and the lifetime burden of an HIV-positive diagnosis. If all this isn't sufficiently topical or relevant, consider this: The starting point of Foster's odyssey was his childhood in nearby Concord. Where authority figures at church and school told him he would get AIDS and go to hell for being what he is.

Foster newly inhabits the music and lyrics of Kander & Ebb's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" as he relives the three-day binge of sex and drugs that left him HIV-positive — from a sex partner he can't even recall. In the aftermath of that poisonous euphoria, he effectively transmutes Tim Rice's lyric for "Gethsemane" (from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar) so that it gives you a visceral feeling of his forebodings of death.

When METHod is generating its maximum illumination, you can hardly tell whether Foster is injecting lyrics with new meaning or shooting up with their inspiration. The Xtreme, go-for-broke style of Foster's delivery gives you a vivid picture of the adrenaline-drenched creature who has gazed into the fatal crystal and plunged eagerly into its allure. Yes, Foster has his meth addiction at a safe distance for now — but keeping it there will obviously be a lifelong battle. Performing his one-man show is a transparent substitute for the rush.

At times, the marriage between Foster and the materials he has chosen seemed strained. Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," sung when our protagonist yields to the lucrative temptation of male prostitution, buckled under the weight of Foster's degradation and self-loathing. Similarly, Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive" is just too civilized in its design for the extreme desperation that Foster labors to convey.

The math of METH is axiomatic. If you're going to blaze through 15 songs in less than an hour, there's not going to be much time given over to vital exposition and narrative. Foster's recap of the history of crystal meth and the current threat it represents is a nice start but barely that. His own storyline gives the sequence of songs a spine and a skeleton, but those bones could stand plenty more flesh.

Sure, the thrilling thrust of Foster's message might be compromised if its swift wallop were slowed down by too many details. But that's not close to happening yet. Instead, what Foster subtitles "An Evening of Raw Musical Theatre" occasionally feels like an hour of extremely promising, half-finished musical theater. When I was thirsting for more of the sordid, seductive and repulsive specifics of Foster's experience, I felt he was retreating into nicely crafted equivalents that sometimes fit remarkably well, aided by some theatrical embroidery. Yet they weren't always as good as tailor-made.

Besides the white-hot passion of Foster's performance, there are several reasons why the current Actor's Theatre of Charlotte presentation triumphs over its shortcomings. First and foremost are the wondrous musical arrangements by Karl Shymanovitz, who directed The METH in its New York debut last October. Backed by arrangements for a single synthesizer, played splendidly here by Marty Gregory, none of Foster's songs sounds like a reduction.

At times, the transitions are so seamless between different songs — and different composers! — you need your program to keep pace. Most of the songs are off the beaten track — from shows like Elegies, The Wild Party, Floyd Collins (or cut from Aladdin!) — so large chunks of METH come at you without having to shoulder through the impressions left by previous singers. Even when you're not getting the authentic dish on Foster's misadventures, you're likely to be discovering fresh songs worth knowing.

Chip Decker's set design, combining video screens with a pair of bizarro posters warning us against meth, usually abets the experience of sensual assault. Unfortunately, what's on those screens doesn't consistently sustain MTV intensity — and Decker has yet to learn that a blank screen is taboo in the new millennium.

Actor's Theatre has subtly reinvented its mainstage as a cabaret space, pushing back its starting time to a more decadent 9pm, enhancing the atmospherics. Some of the meat that's missing during METHod to My Madness can be filled in if you stay at your table and wait for Foster to reappear for the post-show Q&A. In this respect, the Actor's Theatre version is surely more revelatory than the Manhattan original, with Foster laudably candid and detailed in his answers.

Were there more polish and less strain in Foster's performance, we might lose some of the impact of the madness sketched in his story — and the urgency of his message. Already on Saturday, two nights after METH's opening, Foster frequently sounded ragged in his upper register.

No, you don't expect a guy who is coming out as gay and HIV-positive to care a great deal about preserving his voice. That's one of the broader brush strokes on Foster's canvas that makes his persona so distinctive and haunting. But if I were planning to satisfy my curiosity about My MADness, I'd strongly consider peeping in at 650 East Stonewall Street on Thursday night after Foster had rested his larynx for four nights. I suspect Foster's sound will not be as easy on the ear when his show closes this Saturday after throwing caution to the wind for three more audiences.

Despite the poor judgment that has marred his past, Foster tells his story without thunderous preaching. He frankly admits the allure of his addiction, even glamorizing it slightly while exposing its deadliness. Foster's instincts chime well with his intent, so the best moments of METH are raw and purgative in exactly the right redemptive spirit.

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