The joy and the destruction of drug abuse, from both sides of the tracks

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Michael Laurence and Dael Orlandersmith. (Sandra Coudert. )
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Getting high looks like a lot of fun in Horsedreams. Until it doesn’t. And then it looks really, really ugly.

The drug use starts off casually enough. A young man meets a young woman at a disco—Nell’s, for New Yorkers old enough to remember the 1980s—where champagne and cocaine fuel their budding romance. (In a series of alternating reminiscences, it’s clear that the details of their early relationship are a blur, since his story doesn’t quite match hers, but the important part is the fun they have getting blasted together.) More booze, more coke, and more nights behind velvet roped follow, and soon enough (or perhaps, too soon) Desiree and Loman are married and raising a baby in Westchester. Their youthful carousing fades as the demands of parenthood take over.

But Desiree, who couldn’t make it through her wedding or her pregnancy entirely sober, can’t quite leave the good times behind as a suburban mom. She starts sneaking a line of coke on the weekends, then more during the week, before she graduates to speedballs—mixing her coke with heroin. By the time her son Luka is three, she is a junkie shooting up horse, until she overdoses, needle in her arm on the floor of the bathroom, while her husband sleeps in the next room.

Left to raise a son on his own, Loman moves back to the city and hires a nanny to watch Luka. Mira, a 40-something black woman living in the projects in Harlem, first sees Loman as a rich white guy—an Upper East Side lawyer taking limos around town while someone else raises his kid. But she quickly realizes what they have in common: Addiction has ruined both their lives. He’s been left widowed and lonely; she’s lost her father and brother to drugs, and has to work at a job that makes poor use of her obvious intellect to support herself and her alcoholic mother. Mira knows the horrors of addiction, heroin in particular. So when she sees the telltale signs that Loman is sliding into a dangerous place, even putting Luka (now 10) at risk, she has to decide whether to stay in her place and keep her job, or confront her employer and risk her paycheck to protect the boy.

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It’s tough to tell a fresh story about drug abuse, but playwright Dael Orlandersmith, who also plays Mira, has created a compelling piece of theater. Many of the elements are not new by themselves, but by bringing Mira and Loman together in her narrative, she can stress just how different addiction looks depending on race and class: Loman takes a limo to 125th Street to pick up his stash before returning to his tony apartment, chasing his heroin with expensive scotch, while Mira’s brother spent his last days on the floor of a filthy crack den, reduced to stealing to support his habit. Underneath these important but superficial details, though, Orlandersmith’s deeper point is that while Loman’s decline might look prettier, in the end, addiction is addiction—consuming, relentless, devastating. Heroin destroys a rich white man’s life just as surely as it destroyed a poor black man’s life.

Mira is the key to the play’s dramatic success, and Orlandersmith is more than up to the task, imbuing the character with integrity and intelligence without making her a saint. Michael Laurence has a long arc as Loman, and while he’s never particularly warm or sympathetic, he effectively falls apart before our eyes—starting as a cool playboy, morphing into a hard-working single dad, and finally devolving into a strung-out, disheveled junkie. The other characters are less fully drawn: Desiree dies early in the play, and Luka is, well, a kid, so there’s less for actors Roxanna Hope and Matthew Schechter to work with.

Director Godron Edelstein keeps the tension building during the intermissionless show, but the sections where characters tell their individual stories directly to the audience in monologues, or in snippets that overlap in verbal fugues, get more stagey and less effective as the play progresses. And Orlandersmith’s “horse” metaphors are similarly overdone: The child of heroin addicts plays with toy horses (which are displayed around the perimeter of Takeshi Kata’s minimalist set), and as he gets older, he takes horseback riding lessons—everyone says he seems like a natural around a horse. It might have been fun in a smaller dose.

Shortcomings aside, Horsedreams manages to depict addiction from multiple perspectives at once, offering an insightful view of an issue that’s black and white, and awful all over.

Horsedreams is showing at the Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place. Tickets are $55. call 212-279-4200.