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'The Accident' and Falling from Grace

What happens when a life-changing, inspiring story isn’t true?

Falling, and falling from grace: those are the two themes that come together to form The Accident, the story of a mountain climber who becomes famous after he falls off the edge of cliff trying to save two stranded hikers and breaks nearly every bone in his body. But after the book he writes about his recovery rockets him to stardom, the new celebrity's story begins to crumble, and we begin to wonder if the truth may be more relative than we might have thought.

It's a plot that could hardly be more relevant, and though theater company Driver's Seat Entertainment has been relating the tale to that of a Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods, you will not be able to watch this play without seeing Brian Williams. None of the characters have names, leaving us to see how easily they could be any of is, given the right circumstances. Dipti Bramhandkar's play brings a solemn, contemplative tone to FRIGID New York, and even in its stripped-down form, the story is a fascinating look at heroism and celebrity in the modern day.

We begin the tale at an awards ceremony two years after the accident, where the mountain climber is receiving an award for his work with other people recovering from severe physical trauma. From there, we move fluidly between book signings, rehab sessions, interviews and phone calls with his father, each two-person scene creating its own piece of the story without any set or costume changes. In this set-up, where everything else is stripped away, the human relationships are all that matters.

The Accident is also, to some degree, a story about Indian American culture; not only are the hero and his father Indian, but so are the journalist, the MC and even the fan's mother. There is nothing about the tale of a man who falls off a mountain that requires it to be about Indian characters, but the culturally specific choice adds a great deal to the play. Particularly engaging is the character of Baba (Rahoul Roy), the climber's father, who struggles with his need to protect and provide for his sick wife, find a good wife for his constantly disappointing son and connect with his "celebrity" child who has lost track of the importance of family along the way.

Just as touching and entertaining is the relationship between the awkward, self-conscious climber (Bobby Rodriguez) and his physical therapist (Robert Montana), whose warmth and trust reminds us of the immense struggle that recovery is, and the deep bonds that it can form between people throughout. The Accident does a fairly good job at depicting the immense difficulty of rehabilitation after a physical trauma, proving that even recovering at all after such a fall is a feat to be applauded. That bond is also present between Rodriguez's character and his largest fan (Cara Yeates), whose joy and bold energy comes from her amazement that the climber can climb again and that she can surf again after a broken leg.

To some extent, The Accident is a sketch of a larger story waiting to be told. We don't hear or see much of the mountain climbing itself, from the lifestyle and training to its celebrity culture, while a single admirer stands in for all of the climber's fans, one journalist for all of the media. The detective element of the tale also does not play as large of a role as it could have; by the time the play starts, we're already pretty sure the climber's story will be disproven, and we are just waiting for it to happen.

Still, the drama of trying to hold on while one's new identity is torn apart is certainly compelling enough on its own. Bramhandkar does an elegant job with The Accident, telling a difficult story with the greatest respect for the victims of such traumas while withholding judgment on those who fabricate their stories. Instead, the question of how to feel about the climber's deception is left entirely up to you.

The Accident plays at the Kraine Theater as part of the FRIGID New York Festival.

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