‘Handjob’ Comes to Grip with some Large Issues….

By Ernest Kearney — One of the Nice Ones produced in 2016 by the Echo Theater Company resulted in two accomplishments for its playwright, Erik Patterson.

It earned him an Ovation nomination.

And it demonstrated Patterson was a dramatist of some sand who composed with a wickedly bent quill. Returning to the Echo and Director Chris Fields with his new play Handjob, Patterson proves the sand is still there and the quill is still bent.

We open on a scene that seems to have been plucked out of an original series on Showtime.

Keith (Steven Culp) stands in an upscale Los Angeles apartment facing off with the imposing figure of Eddie (Michael Rishawn). We soon learn that Keith, the white, uptight gay writer has hired Eddie, the really buff black guy, to clean his apartment shirtless. * writer's hand *

As Keith undertakes to make conversation, in a rather strained fashion, it’s revealed that Eddie is straight. The awkwardness that this admission drops over the room gives rise to the efforts from both men to somehow connect. Keith relates a tale concerning a recent visit to a local bath house where his farsightedness and clumsy interpersonal skills brought about a situation that he will soon again repeat. Eddie, on the other hand, tells of a childhood memory from when an uncle was vanished from the family for his “difference.”

All of that puts on display Patterson’s solid talent for whipping up clever dialogue and the ability to structure believable characters.

Unfortunately, things between the two men suddenly implode resulting from a major breach of etiquette on Keith’s part.

Then we shift into the second scene.

The apartment is the same, and the situation is somewhat the same; however, with minor variations that are quite noticeable.

Now it’s Kevin (Stephen Guarino) standing in that upscale L. A. apartment facing off with the not so imposing figure of Bradley (Ryan Nealy).

Kevin is again a gay, white writer that has paid to have his apartment tidied up by a shirtless male housecleaner. But this time that cleaner is also white, and his sexuality, as well as his minimum clothing requirements are far more negotiable.

The dialogue, while somewhat replicating that from the opening scene, also rebounds with recognizable distortions, like a reflection from a funhouse mirror.

You begin wondering if this is a play set in successions of parallel universes, with slight deviations of each character filling the alternative realities, like that old episode of Star Trek where Spock and Kirk finds another dimension with nasty Nazi versions of themselves. And maybe your thoughts turn to that new Watchmen series coming out or you remember that Harry Turtledove’s alternative history series with ten volumes and ask why did you…

Just about then Erik Patterson pulls the narrative rug out from underneath your feet that lands your rump in a totally unexpected divergent direction.

Which is exactly what a good playwright is supposed to do.

Now, I don’t plan to spoil the fun, so that’s the last I’ll say on the subject.

I will say that what Patterson is attempting to do here is only partially successful. But to be honest his chances of succeeding are slightly less than those of Icarus, and slightly more than Custer’s.

But it is refreshing to see a playwright who fails because of the impossibility of obtaining that “quicksilver sprite of creativity” for which he’s striving. Most playwrights nowadays fail because they just can’t catch up with that “snail of a half baked idea” they’ve been chasing for days.

Director Fields seems at his best when presented with a work that is devised less along the dictates of Aristotle’s dramatic unities, and more like a theatrical Rubik’s cube. His staging is solid, top to bottom, and his cast inhabit the caliber that has made the Echo Theater Company one of L.A.’s most respected theatrical bodies.

Culp and Rishawn bookend the middle act of this work securing the bow of Patterson’s dramatic arc with both craft and sincerity. Guarino and Nealy as their wild card doppelgangers manage to overcome some impressive challenges with skillful aplomb, but they also benefit from a deliberate intensification of the playwright’s talents. Nealy has by far the highest kicking “character” in the role of Bradley, which he carries off with the ease of a sexually ambidextrous Bruce Lee. Guarino as Kevin, on the other hand, is graced with the best rant in the play: His delivery is justifiably accorded the audience’s applause.

What brings an audience into a theater has been debated since tickets were “scalped” for the first goat-song, but for my money what fills those seats is an audience’s desire for understanding, for enlightenment.

If you know that your uncle killed your father, is revenge a good idea?

If you know that your whole world, your cherished home and beloved cherry orchard are threatened with destruction, what would stop you from saving them?

If you’ve vowed to find the truth behind the suffering of your city why might it be a better idea not to?

Patterson’s play poses questions of the respect and boundaries individuals are entitled to and what the ramifications are when one ignores or oversteps them.

 But on a larger scale the question Patterson ponders in his play concerns our interpretation of our own realities.

Patterson toys with the nature of how the artist interprets the reality about him and whether that interpretation is an attempt at improving it, deciphering it or disguising it.

Alas, this is an existential dilemma beyond the capacity of any of us to decode so the possibility of the audience leaving the theater with a sense of understanding is not on the table here.

But while Patterson’s Handjob is vaguely unsatisfying, it is nevertheless thoroughly entertaining, and while he can provide no answer to the questions he raises, it is certainly fun to watch him mulling them over.

Be warned, the play’s title is indicative of one of the subjects touched on and is definitely for mature audiences.

.

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* writer's hand * One of the delights to this job is the information that I come across when I do the background research for my reviews.

Now I first recalled seeing ads in the L.A. Free Press for women willing to dust your knickknacks in the buff in the late 1980s, but I had no idea that the housecleaning industry in the USA raked in $46 billion dollars annually.

Or that the hourly rate for nude housecleaners varies between $26 and $225, or that the state of Kansas had to wait until 1992 for their first nude housekeeping service to open.

I didn’t know that in 2011 “nude housecleaner” Thomas Cordero was arrested in the Bronx and charged with the brutal murder of John Conley who he claimed attempted to rape him leading to his stabbing Conley 14 times in self-defense.

When asked by police what motivated the Manhattan paralegal to try to assault him, Cordero answered, “It’s because I have a nice ass.” (He was acquitted.)

Nor did I know that the nation’s top ranked nude housekeeping services are in Tallahassee. (Tallahassee!?!?? What is the world coming to?)

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(Featured in Lead Image: Steven Culp and Michael Rishawn / Photo by Darrett Sanders)


Handjob

Dates

Running Now

Fridays thru Mondays

 ‘Til Oct. 28,

Venue

The Echo Theater Company

Atwater Village Theatre

3269 Casitas Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90039

For Tickets and Information Call
310-307-3753
or Go To
www.EchoTheaterCompany.com


Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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