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Theatre in Review: The Dork Knight (Abingdon Theatre Company)/Mope(Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Top: The Dork Knight. Jason O'Connell. Photo: Ben Strothmann. Bottom: Mope. Eric T. Miller and RJ Brown. Photo: Jody Christopherson.

Two new Off Broadway productions seem very different on the surface, yet both focus on men struggling to attain maturity while scrambling for success in show business -- and each of their definitions of success is warped by the milieu he inhabits. The far more benign of the two, The Dork Knight, consists of the fanboy confessions of Jason O'Connell, whose life, in a certain sense, truly began when he was eighteen and saw the film Batman, directed by Tim Burton. This solo show tracks O'Connell's difficult childhood (beginning with, but not limited to, a broken home), his decision to become an actor, and his search for a sustaining relationship with a woman, all of which unfold in relation to whichever Batman film is currently in release. Frankly, it gets to be a little eerie; O'Connell's career seems to spin out of control just as the Batman series goes into a critical and popular decline, then picks up with the arrival of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, which reinstated the franchise. It's as if O'Connell's entire life has been indexed to the box office fortunes of a movie superhero.

Along the way, O'Connell, an experienced classical actor, explicates the hidden parallels between Hamlet and Burton's Batman ("He's much more of a brooder than an action hero, he grapples with a strong desire to avenge his father's death, and he drives his girlfriend crazy with passive-aggressive bullshit.") He offers some hilariously cogent film criticism, most notably his description of "the candy-colored, mind-numbing, brain-draining, codpiece-flaunting gay fantasia on national themes that is Batman Forever." He even shows how some of his takes on Shakespeare's characters were influenced by his favorite bat-villains, each of whom he imagines counselling him in times of trouble. Not that their advice is useful, or, in the case Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze and Tom Hardy's Bane, even intelligible, thanks to their thick accents. He also offers up some tasty imitations of Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, and, especially, Michael Keaton, with whom he identifies, and not just because they share a remarkably weak jawline.

O'Connell links his life so thoroughly to his favorite cinematic superhero that, at times, like Robin, you may want to cry out, "Holy parallels, Batman, get a life!" And, really, there's little doubt that the whole my-life-as-a-Bat-fan concept becomes strained after a while. Some of the humor doesn't land as strongly as it might, although this may be because O'Connell is still honing his delivery. Still, the actor is never less than engaging, and there's real pain behind the jokes as he searches for the meaning of manhood without the help of too many real-life models, living his so-called adult life in the thrall of "a grown man who wears his underpants on the outside of his clothes while his young male ward puts on pantyhose and elf slippers so they can go fight a fat man in a tuxedo who commits crimes with all his different colored umbrellas."

Tony Speciale's staging has a casual intimacy that makes The Dork Knight easy to like. The production also benefits from Zach Blane's lighting, which is more varied and modulated than one expects in a show of this type. There are also quite a few sound effects, but no sound designer is credited. What keeps The Dork Knight engaging throughout is O'Connell's honesty, which sometimes approaches the self-lacerating; the day he finally realizes that his obsession isn't entirely healthy and that it is time to put away childish bat-things, you'll be rooting for him to get it together.

I'm not so sure you'll be rooting for Trevor, the antihero of Mope. When we first meet him, he's standing around in a bar, trying to make time with an unseen female. Trevor certainly tries hard, but his technique is lacking; I'm no expert, but something tells me there are better icebreakers than "Have you ever tried to throat nine inches?"

If that sounds like a line from a bad porno movie, it's not surprising, because, when he isn't working as a bouncer at a club, Trevor appears in adult films. He has been at it for nearly a decade and, along the way, has brought into the industry his friend Shawn, who is black, which makes him a natural for something called "cheating white wife cuckold sessions." Trevor and Shawn dream of starting their own company, as the "Smash Bros," but, as the play begins, fault lines have begun to form between them. Shawn, who has serious plans to be an adult-film mogul, is lecturing Trevor about his lack of professional behavior. Trevor, however, only wants to party all the time, and his casual attitude is turning him into a pariah in the workplace. It's a little bit like an X-rated version of A Star is Born: Shawn is on the way up, Trevor is on the skids, and something's got to give. The press materials for the show define a "mope" as "the lowest-level male performer in the adult-film industry. An anonymous stunt-penis. The guy in that porno you watched who was wearing sunglasses and socks." I'm afraid this description fits Trevor to a T.

For the first half of Mope's relatively brief running time, you might find yourself wondering why you're supposed to be interested in these denizens of the San Fernando Valley demimonde. The playwright, Paul Cameron Hardy, seems to know the territory, but if you've seen the film Boogie Nights or Pretty Filthy, the delightful musical about the private lives of porn stars, you'll find very few revelations, aside from some distasteful details about razor burn, levels of ejaculation, and the difficulties of holding an erection during a multi-hour shoot. (Pills known as "blues" can be helpful.) Hardy introduces a pert, pretty neighbor named Alice, who recoils from Trevor's crude attempts at a pass ("Asian girls -- you get whatever you want, I bet"), instead befriending Shawn, much to Trevor's irritation. For about two thirds of its running time, Mope coasts on the skill of its talented cast, who make these inconsequential characters likable in spite of themselves. But, as Trevor's career goes into a sharp decline, Hardy doles out a series of brutal confrontations -- including an on-set humiliation at the hands of a fed-up leading lady -- that significantly ups the tension level, leading directly to an abrupt, violent finale.

If the director, RJ Tolan, struggles a bit with the play's first half, he gets excellent work from his cast of new faces. Eric T. Miller's Trevor is a feral man-boy, who, tragically, has begun to see life as one long dirty-movie scenario. He tries living life like a porn-film character, a plan that hardly wins friends. His ham-handed attempts at picking up women, his studied frat-boy attitude (wearing very, very thin at thirty-five), and his dependence on Shawn all reveal him to be out of touch with reality. (He still lies to his mother about his job, pretending he works in a law firm.) In one of the production's more remarkable sequences, we see him at his club job: Looking bored and simmering with anger, he tersely checks one ID after another, occasionally trying to get a woman's attention and turning hostile when she cuts him dead. The sequence is almost dialogue-free, yet it lays bare the hopelessness of his existence.

RJ Brown's easy charm and megawatt smile reveal Shawn as a young man who is going places; he also does especially telling work when convinced by a colleague (a cool, casually devastating Hollye Hudson) that he has to get rid of Trevor if he wants to get anywhere in the industry. The scene in which he tells Trevor of his plan to move out -- both men pretending that it's no big deal -- is a marvel of economy and suppressed emotion. If Alice's character never quite comes into focus -- appalled at first, she ends up a kind a porn-star mascot -- it's not the fault of Jennifer Tsay, who is both personable and tough as nails, as the occasion demands. When things get really desperate for Trevor, he turns to her, in a monologue that shows him at both his neediest and most repellent; let's just say he chooses the wrong person to bare his soul to.

A production of EST's Youngblood program, Mope has a fairly basic production, with Angelica Borrero-Fortier's simple, unadorned set standing in for Trevor and Shawn's apartment, a car interior, and the film studio. Audrey Nauman's costumes neatly contrast the characters' styles -- although Alice's work wardrobe may be a little too casual for a hedge fund job -- and she also makes some amusing comments on porn-film costuming. John Salutz's lighting and Emily Auciello's sound are both okay.

Mope isn't a total success, but Hardy clearly knows how to write blistering confrontations. He's just the sort of writer the Youngblood program should be cultivating, and I'm pretty sure we'll be hearing from him again, and soon. Like Jason O'Connell, he offers convincing evidence that there's still plenty of literary life left in the immature American male. -- David Barbour

(18 January 2017)

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