Theater Review: BABY EYES (Playwrights Arena)

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by Tony Frankel on October 31, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

IT’S ALL GREEK TO ME

In 2011, Playwrights Horizon Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera staged Donald Jolly’s bonded, which explored the restrictiveness of gays based on their situation, namely slavery in 1820s’ Virginia. That work-in-progress was made more than palatable with witty, poetic dialogue and a tantalizing tale.

Now comes a tale of repressed homosexuality, but this time it’s in 1950s’ Baltimore. There are three fascinating closeted gay characters: 15-year-old Gio (Rudy Martinez), a brave effeminate loner desperate to connect with a father figure; his Italian father, Salvatore (Ted Monte), who has a violent temper and a secret desire for gay sex; and an older, bisexual, kindly black newcomer to the neighborhood, Tremaine (Melvin Ward), who is fond of the taunted Gio, and entices him into a friendship with books and beauty but no sex. Rounding out the cast are Jason Caceres, James Kaemmerling, and Dennis Renard as a very sissified, beautiful, tightly muscled Greek chorus who play commentators (natch) and both male and female characters, such as bullies, a chanteuse, Gio’s mom, and Tremaine’s father.

Based on the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, in which a God takes a handsome soldier as a lover, the basic story has all the right elements, but the way its told gets unnecessarily confusing. Why is Tremaine so ambivalent about his feelings for Gio, and so secretive about leaving for Paris? At one point, I thought of A View from the Bridge, (leaving for Europe, incest, 50s, Italians) in which we understand every motivation. Boy, could this story use a slice of Arthur Miller, especially with the scenes between Gio and his dad (does Salvatore have incest on his mind? If not, why are there so many red herrings?).

While the specifics go all over the map, some of the acting is awesome (Mr. Rivera sure knows how to cast a show): Mr. Monte is menacing and absolutely frightening as the threatening, ticking time-bomb father, and Mr. Ward is spot-on as the conflicted, loving Tremaine. The Billie Holiday-drenched soundscape by Jesse Mandapat is equally effective.

Jolly gets so lost in re-quoting the Greeks and Shakespeare that he loses site of just who his story is about. The muddled and confusing storytelling is certainly not aided by Rivera, who allows his Greek-chorus triad to overact to the point that we often don’t know if they’re playing men or women. And if his playwright gets repetitive, which Jolly does, than it is the director’s job to shift the way he stages. At first I was fascinated by Rivera’s usual knack for visuals: the chorus sitting among us in-the-round spectators; the quick-shifting of scenes with minimal furniture; campy witty gestures; and the overblown emotion associated with Greek drama. But after a half hour of this 90-minute one-act, the staging matches the script — vacillating from a teasing, theatrical manner to a weird sort of artifice — and it quickly becomes overkill, deadening our senses until ennui sets in.

And our senses aren’t helped by truly the most punishing chairs in town. Atwater Village Theatre, which rents to Playwrights Arena, has got to be taken to task.

If it’s anything we have learned from Greek Mythology, it’s amazing storytelling. Why are playwrights with the talent of Mr. Jolly not just telling a story? I hope he goes back to the drawing board on this one, figures out the story, and then couches it in Greek drama elements. Perhaps then he can go from Greek passive to Greek active.

photos courtesy of Playwrights Arena

Playwrights’ Arena
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave.
Mon and Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on November 5, 2018
for tickets, call 800.838.3006 or visit Playwrights Arena

{ 1 comment }

Floyd November 1, 2018 at 2:50 pm

Well stated, Tony!

On the way home from seeing this play, I began to wax pedantic about the money Tremaine was holding onto instead of paying rent to Gio’s dad. When counting the money, didn’t he end up with $900? (Or did I mishear?)

$900 in 1955 (the year of the Emmett Till trial verdict) would be equivalent to $8,300 today (thank you, internet!). Rent on a flat in Baltimore couldn’t have been that expensive … so why the resistance when Gio’s papa came calling for the rent (and — wink, wink — more)? Was a ship’s passage to Paris (where Tremaine’s dad lived — I think) that pricey?

Hmmmmmmm… just more confusing aspects…

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