By James Bartholomew
At the end of “Message in a Bottle,” writer and performer Michelle Drozdick reassures her audience that the story they’ve just seen is “word for word, beat by beat exactly what happened to me.” The line scores a knowing laugh from the amused crowd. That laugh might seem like an odd reaction to a show whose performer relives her struggle with alcoholism. But Ms. Drozdick and director Adrian Sexton take a few major liberties in a production with a quirky yet satisfying layer of levity and heart.
On its face, “Message in a Bottle” is a somewhat familiar story of addiction, denial, ruin and redemption. That paradigm is immediately shifted, however, thanks to clever prop work that reframes Ms. Drozdick’s alcohol abuse as a dysfunctional romance with an anthropomorphized bottle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
Dressed up in a necktie, and sporting googly eyes and forks for arms, the aptly named “Tito” quickly sweeps Michelle off her feet. After a touching first date leads to a night of excess and debauchery, Michelle confesses her love to her new flame, and the two begin “seeing each other” almost constantly. Of course, all of this happens to the disapproval of Michelle’s mother, who doesn’t understand why her daughter won’t just settle down with that nice bottle of Pepsi next door.
Tito, and the winking playfulness of his inclusion in “Message in a Bottle,” is the play’s greatest strength. He is a fiendishly clever scene partner for Ms. Drozdick. While a handful of scenes conveys exposition through phone calls, Tito and Michelle are in near‑constant dialogue throughout the piece. That said, because Tito is a bottle of vodka with glued‑on plastic eyes who doesn’t speak aloud, it falls on Ms. Drozdick to fill the audience in on the silent half of the conversation as organically as possible.
It’s a task she handles exceptionally well. Ms. Drozdick does a great job playing up the humor of the ridiculous situation, but she also excels at dialing back that comedy for the more dramatic and tragic moments of her story. The specifics of Tito’s imagined dialogue aren’t always clear, but Ms. Drozdick deserves praise for making their outlandish love story believable. Despite being an inanimate bottle of alcohol, the always present Tito proves a terrific springboard for Ms. Drozdick’s earnest performance and adds a much‑needed veneer of dynamics to a play ostensibly about a lonely woman moping around her apartment.
Thematically, Tito’s inclusion allows for some insightful commentary about the world of an addict. With his striped tie and askew fork‑arms, Tito is decidedly silly and nonthreatening. The disarming humor lends a feeling of safety to Michelle’s budding relationship with alcohol – after all, as scary as addiction can be, googly eyes are seldom as alarming. But the initial humor of Tito’s design turns tragic when Michelle wallows on the floor in utter despair. When the dark cloud of addition is distilled into a small, friendly‑looking glass bottle, the inherent irony of the powerlessness that accompanies alcoholism becomes all the more apparent.
Unfortunately, as Michelle’s addiction becomes more dangerous and self‑destructive, the metaphor of chemical dependence as a literal toxic relationship gets a little stretched. Reimagining alcoholism as a broken and codependent love affair might initially make the trauma more relatable, but it runs the risk of oversimplifying the very real disease at work, and conflates psychological cravings with chemical ones. Moreover, “Message in a Bottle” follows a traditional falling‑out‑of‑love throughline, one in whose penultimate scene, Michelle finally leaves Tito by heroically kicking him out of her apartment. It’s a triumphant moment for our main character and undoubtedly true to Ms. Drozdick’s own impressive story, but somewhat atypical for a disease some of whose victims find themselves in and out of rehab their entire lives, regardless of their force of will.
That’s not to say that “Message in a Bottle”’s abstracted view of alcoholism is disingenuous or blithe. In addition to being wildly funny, it’s an intimate and thoughtful show whose ingenious premise makes it both universally relatable and deeply personal. But while mapping a traditional “failed romance” story onto an addiction narrative is certainly a novel take, by the end, the strained comparison risks a reductive view of the disease as a whole. Still, “Message in a Bottle” is a fresh and surprisingly life‑affirming look into the life of an addict in her darkest hour.
“Message in a Bottle”
Written and Performed by Michelle Drozdick
Directed by Adrian Sexton
Photo credit: Roberto Tobar
August 18 – August 20, 2019
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.