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Theatre in Review: Mr. Parker (Penguin Rep Theatre/Theatre Row)

Derek Smith, Davi Santos. Photo: John Quilty

Mr. Parker is a modestly scaled, modestly achieving romantic drama about a star-crossed affair between men of two generations. The kind of attraction often booked in June when LGBTQ tourists come to town for Pride month, it doesn't really fall into the gaysploitation category although there is enough nudity in one scene to require audience members to deposit their cellphones in Yondr pockets. But it knows its target audience, who may very well overlook its soapier aspects. And it provides three skilled actors with a solid workout. At the same time, it never solves its central problem: Who is the title character of Michael McKeever's play and why should we care about him?

Terry Parker, a well-heeled Manhattanite of a certain age -- all right, he's about to turn 54 - is numb with grief following the death of his husband seven months earlier. His spouse was a famous artist along the lines of Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, best-known for his gleaming close-up photos of cellphones. Indeed, he was so successful that Terry relinquished his flagging career as a novelist, assuming the role of steadfast helpmeet. Left rudderless by sudden death, he has become a semi-recluse, drinking heavily, and dwelling on the past. (The play worries, rather oddly, that Terry is still in deep mourning after half a year, hardly an excessive period following the loss of a partner of three decades.)

One night, fed up with loneliness, Terry gets out of the house and, after a few too many cocktails, ends up in bed with Justin, a twenty-eight-year-old knockout who pays his bills, sort of, by tending bar and driving an Uber. On the morning after, Terry is more than a little unnerved by Justin's easy, talkative manner and moves quickly to get him out the door. (The cheerful Justin is happy to oblige, although he would be equally happy to stick around.) But one date leads to another and soon they are semi-officially together, with Terry springing for dinners at Blue Hill and outfitting his young boyfriend in smart new suits. Still, neither one is willing to call it a relationship. And, really, is it?

For Mr. Parker to be engaging, there must be some suspense about whether the Terry - Justin romance, however improbable, has a chance of flourishing. But it seems clear from the get-go that Justin is a mild case of arrested development who likes the approval (and cash) of a substitute father figure, while Terry is using Justin as an analgesic for his emotional distress. Furthermore, we never get much of a handle on Terry, who has done little or nothing since publishing a flop novel three decades earlier. The play's action follows his gradual emotional unfreezing, but he remains something of a blank. What has been doing with himself all these years? What was his marriage like? (The script is notably vague on this point.) The play's fundamental unreality is not helped by an eleventh-hour revelation about Justin's personal life and a twist, held back for too long, about the car accident that killed Terry's husband.

Still, even if Mr. Parker eventually talks itself out, the three-member cast is a pleasure to spend ninety minutes with. As Terry, Derek Smith is especially good when, recalling the wrenching decision to take his husband off life support, the veteran character actor needs only the tiniest of gestures to suggest deep reserves of grief. Davi Santos, best-known for the CBS series Good Sam, has more than enough charm and good looks to convince one that the grieving Terry would take a flyer on a fling with someone half his age. Mia Matthews, who did striking work in After, an earlier McKeever drama, excels as Terry's brittle sister-in-law, who manages her late brother's estate and is desperate to get him a retrospective at the Whitney. It takes a smart, intelligent actress to handle such a spiky, interfering character -- at one point, she tries to make Justin go away with a big, fat check -- and the play perks up whenever she appears.

Joe Brancato manages these sometimes touching, sometimes contrived proceedings with his usual skill and he gets solid work from his design team. David Goldstein's set, a shabby-chic East Village apartment complete with skylight, feels exactly right, aided by Todd Wren's lighting. Myra Oney's costumes draw generational and class lines with acuity. Max Silverman's original music strikes the right melancholic note; he also provides some highly sophisticated sound effects, such as a mournful piece of classic music overlaid with rain and the beep of a heart rain monitor.

Whatever its weaknesses, Mr. Parker probably checks a box for audiences looking for an easy-to-take drama with an easy-on-the-eyes leading man. If it is unlikely to enjoy a breakout success, the theatre is a house with many mansions. Of course, some are better built than others. --David Barbour

(10 June 2022)

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