Theater Review: BECOMING A MAN (World Premiere at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA)

Post image for Theater Review: BECOMING A MAN (World Premiere at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA)

by Lynne Weiss on February 22, 2024

in Theater-Boston


The creative and absorbing world premiere of P. Carl’s Becoming a Man at A.R.T. brings the joys and challenges of gender transition for one person and those who love him. Based on playwright P. Carl’s memoir of the same name, this world premiere theatrical adaptation which opened last night is co-directed by P. Carl and A.R.T.’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus. Carl (Petey Gibson) often shares the stage with Polly (Stacey Raymond), Carl’s name for the first 50 years of his life, dramatizing the ways in which the past can follow anyone, including those who have transitioned to a completely different identity and life.

There is no doubt that Carl was always masculine, but it wasn’t until gender-affirming surgery and hormones that he truly “became a man”: People call him “sir” rather than “ma’am”, “Carl” rather than “Polly”; and he can enjoy swimming in a men’s bathing suit. At least that’s what he thinks as this story begins.

Christopher Liam Moore (Carl's Father) and Petey Gibson (Carl)
Elena Hurst (Lynette) and Petey Gibson (Carl)

Lynette (Elena Hurst), Carl’s wife of twenty years, and whom he deeply loves, strongly identifies as lesbian. As a woman who centers her life around other women, she is upended by Carl’s transition. Suddenly (or so it seems to her, despite Carl’s claim that his transition was gradual) she is in a heterosexual relationship she never wanted. Her frustration comes to a head when Carl purchases out-of-season asparagus. A cook who prides herself on creating healthful and seasonal meals, she is furious over Carl’s lack of sensitivity to her concerns.

Petey Gibson (Carl), Elena Hurst (Lynette), and Stacey Raymond (Carl's Mother)
Elena Hurst (Lynette) and Susan Rome (Janice)

It’s not as though Carl had a positive role model of manhood growing up. His own father (Christopher Liam Moore) is an incredibly selfish and self-absorbed man who exploits Carl’s mother (Susan Rome), a sensitive and supportive presence in Carl’s life who lacks the courage to leave her husband. What Carl does have, however, is a sympathetic personal trainer, Eddie (Justiin Davis), and Nathan (Cody Sloan), a good friend and another transmasc who offers a patient ear. Nathan also models a positive outcome for a former same-sex marriage transitioning to a hetero relationship. And despite his certainty of his masculine identity, Carl finds himself talking and behaving in ways that both Nathan and his former self, Polly, object to. Does becoming a man mean becoming insensitive to the concerns of the person who has been most important to him for the past twenty years? Is there more to “becoming a man” than hanging out in a dive bar with other men and complaining about his wife?

Cody Sloan (Nathan) and Petey Gibson (Carl)
Justiin Davis (Eddie) and Petey Gibson (Carl)

In other words: Can this marriage be saved? The production’s essential question: When we change, can the people we love come with us? The audience is invited to delve further into this question during a 20-minute “Act II” facilitated conversation; the vast majority of the full house stayed for this segment. Many who offered their experiences identified themselves as trans in their reflections; all who spoke found they identified with some aspect of the challenges faced by Carl and Lynette.

Lyam B. Gabel (Associate Director) facilitates Act II
at the A.R.T. world premiere of Becoming a Man
Scenic designer Emmie Finckel kicks off Act II
at the A.R.T. world premiere of Becoming a Man

Ultimately, the question of whether or not Carl and Lynette can stay together is best answered by the play itself: P. Carl’s willingness to expose his own shortcomings and struggles as well as to recognize his wife’s pain is the best predictor for the ongoing success of this relationship. But beyond the fate of this particular marriage, this production — which moves seamlessly through past and present, from Boston to Italy to the American Midwest and from living room to swimming pool — engages and informs by the way it affirms Carl and Lynette’s essential humanity. A crackerjack design team aids in the journey: scenic design by Emmie Finckel, costumes by Qween Jean, lighting by Cha See, music and sound by Paul James Prendergast, and video design by Brittany Bland.

photos by Nile Scott Studios and Maggie Hall

Becoming a Man
American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.)
Harvard University
Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square, 64 Brattle St in Cambridge
ends on March 10, 2024
for tickets, visit A.R.T.

Leave a Comment