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Theater review: My Old Man (And Other Stories) queers the narrative in fabulous ways

Written by
Helen Shaw

The set is a bunch of yellow boxes. There's a wig that looks flammable. The entire prop budget has seemingly gone to the sad, discarded condom that denotes “city park” in one scene. And yet the production of My Old Man (And Other Stories) is rich—in swagger, invention, mischief and heat. Writer-director Jess Barbagallo has made something unabashedly, densely allusive, a bizarro postmodern comedy that reminds you of a dozen books and movies, all hovering at the edge of your consciousness. Are you thinking of Raymond Chandler? Or The Beebo Brinker Chronicles? The serial-adventure structure certainly comes out of pulp, but there's also a jokiness and willingness to pivot into screwball that makes you wonder if Mel Brooks (circa 1974) did a pass on the script.

The main thing here is the crispness and bite of Barbagallo's text, which is, recursively, a love letter to writing itself. We begin with Professor Fletcher Kitane (T. Thompson), lecturing a master class on narrative. “For me,” Fletcher says, world-weary as Philip Marlowe, “the story is my most dangerous old flame.” Student Cara (Gabriella Rhodeen) and the preening T.A. Steven (Aron Canter) hold forth on their own understanding of story, but as the play unfolds and refolds its origami-structure, it becomes clear that these characters create stories wherever they go, by sheer dint of their erotic charisma.

Cara’s ex Barry (Drae Campbell) certainly can't stop thinking about her. Late in the play, Cara comes by Barry's apartment to pick up her stuff, and we see Barbagallo's skill at its most fine-grained. The former lovers bicker and flirt about everyday things, about a pan Barry has thrown out, or the new color Barry's going to paint the walls. In a play that includes strange events (a conversation between a woman and a patch of grass), these moments are exquisitely realistic. This sensation of a relationship on the threshold functions as the underlying tone of the play. There's unrequited longing everywhere; nearly every interaction is a kind of seduction. Formally we're also caught in a both-and, in-between world: One exchange between Cara and her aunt (Monica Wyche) starts with Fletch “outside” their reality reading stage directions, but ends with the narrator coaxed into joining them.

Elsewhere, T.A. Steven annoys a nurse Jess (Cecilia Gentili) on her smoke break, only to discover she can talk to the grass and even the sky itself. Steve's a macho dork (he tries out the line “I have an affinity for dampness” on her), but Jess—a part perfectly crafted for the Argentine trans activist Gentili—is no-nonsense. She sashays over to Barry's apartment, kicks off her heels, and gets into a hysterical Dynasty-level fight with Barry's obsessive neighbor Andrea, an art docent with boundary issues. It was at this point that the show's pleasures totally overwhelmed my circuits. The great downtown performer Emily Davis plays Andrea, but she's also doing an impression of late-career Katharine Hepburn if she were playing Andrea. Davis's mouth wobbles, her voice creaks up and down the entire New England arpeggio, she strikes attitudes. Davis has been the sulky comic genius in a number of plays: she's in Tina Satter's company Half Straddle; she did a brilliant turn in last season's remarkable O Earth. Barbagallo has written a part here that fits over her weirdness like a silk glove. By my count, Davis got exit applause three times.

This is why we go downtown, people. Plays and gorgeous performances like this don't go mainstream—and not just because they're queer as hell. There's a certain thorniness hidden in all the high jinks, a buried anger that can push some audiences (my night it was a couple in the front row) out the door. There are a few jokes about a Paul Nash quote “I am no longer an artist,” that seem, on their face, to be ribbing artists and their pretensions. But Nash wrote that from the trenches in World War I. “Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls,” he went on. Yikes. Barbagallo is observant and funny and kind, but he too has got something bitter to say. Is it the difficulty of love? The impossibility of storytelling? I wasn't sure, and I was laughing when I left My Old Man. It's been a few days, though, and I've started to realize that my lousy soul has been feeling a little singed. It's a lovely feeling; I might go back.

Dixon Place (Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Jess Barbagallo. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through Oct 22. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Helen Shaw on Twitter: @Helen_E_Shaw

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