It’s been nearly three years since Marc Acito enthralled audiences with his laugh-out-loud debut, How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater (Broadway, 2005). Personally, I don’t think any author should wait three years to follow up, but especially not when the subject matter is so endearing, sassy, gossipy, relatable and addictive.
And that’s how Acito writes. College followed high school senior and burgeoning stage actor Edward as he and his quirky group of friends concocted a plan for Edward to get into Juilliard. Now, with last month’s release of Attack of the Theater People (Broadway, 2008), Edward and company are back as college sophomores and a whole new set of problems.
Here’s the plot: Edward, who wants nothing more than to be an actor, has just been kicked out of Juilliard for being “too jazz hands.” To support himself, he tries everything from working Bar Mitzvahs (disguised as Britain’s top MTV VJ) to passing insider trader tips (disguised as the son of a sports hero). Meanwhile, he’s living in the illegally-gained rent-controlled apartment of an actor recently succumbed to AIDS (this is, after all, New York in the 1980s), dealing with his wacky parents and doing his best to support his equally wacky friends.
Of spacy flower child Willow, Acito writes: “‘I just love that you used the word existential in a sentence,’ she said, practically crying. ‘Let’s be friends.’”
And then there’s Doug, Edward’s long-standing (and mostly unrequited) love interest, who is fronting a Bruce Springsteen cover band. Edward, unabashedly gay though repelled by “swishy” men, hates all things Springsteen but is drawn to Doug like a moth to a flame. Not that those feelings stop him from considering other men (“I’m glad to get the money, but I really wanted him to say, Oh, Edward, you’re such a mastermind. Come right over and we’ll celebrate by wrestling naked,” he muses of one crush).
People is convoluted, colorful and fast-paced. It crackles with sarcasm and ‘80s trivia, recreating New York in its tatty, pre-Giuliani creative heyday. The book is also rife with Acito’s trademark one-liners (“Mama said there’s be gays like this” pops up more than once). But the gem of the novel is Edward, who rises again and again despite the odds.
“‘Yeah, I guess deep down I’m very superficial.’” he admits at one juncture, pausing to note, “Over the sound system, Cyndi Lauper sees my true colors shining through.”
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter