It’s rarely a good sign when you go to the theater and there are as many people in the audience as there are actors in the cast. It doesn’t help when the stage is surrounded by sheets of plastic that make it look like it is still under construction, not ready for the public yet. And then you have to sit through an opening scene that is so dreadful you’re looking for the emergency exits, wondering how you can sneak out without being noticed. (You can’t.) But then something happens, and you remember why you love going to the theater in the first place. In this case, it’s the entrance of Joshua Zirger, who commands his role with such a genuineness that you’re willing to forgive many of the shortcomings of Negative Is Positive, a new work by Christy Smith-Sloman, directed by Andreas Robertz, running at the Theater for the New City through November 30. The play is set in 2010, with Simone (Karen Eilbacher) getting diagnosed with HIV by a dentist (Fulton C. Hodges) using a rather questionable experimental procedure. Instead of seeking a second opinion — a serious flaw in the story — Simone rails against her husband, David (Zirger), accusing him of cheating and attacking him unmercifully, reevaluating their life together no matter how much he swears he’s innocent and that he loves her. When their best friends, Brianna (Vivienne Jurado) and George (David M. Farrington), arrive for dinner, Simone gets in an even fouler mood, with fireworks flying that get only more intense in the second act.
Negative Is Positive made headlines recently when former New York Rangers forward, Vogue intern, and model Sean Avery, who was originally supposed to play George, abruptly quit the show amid an argument over pizza. Smith-Sloman, who is also a journalist, and Robertz, the artistic director of OneHeart Productions, have, dare we say, turned a negative into a positive with Avery’s last-minute replacement, Farrington, who displays a natural ease in the role and clearly works well with others. Eilbacher is at her best when she unleashes several massive screams, but it’s Zirger who’s the one to watch here, even during the last moments of intermission, as his character examines his board of notes — David’s taken a year off from his sports job to write a screenplay — trying to decide what comes next. For Zirger, hopefully it’s bigger and better things onstage.