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Theatre in Review: Dark Disabled Stories (Bushwick Starr/Public Theater)

Dickie Hearts, Ryan J. Haddad. Photo: Joan Marcus

"If you came here to pity me, you can leave." So says Ryan J. Haddad, fearlessly eyeballing the audience at the Public's Susan Stein Shiva Theatre. Indeed, you can check any sentimental notions at the door of this eye-opening, often hilarious, and sometimes scathing exercise about the daily lives of the disabled. As it happens, we hardly need such warning since Haddad, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker, begins the evening with a graphic tale of a sexual encounter gone wrong in the seedy bathroom of a Cleveland gay bar named Cocktails. If you're looking for uplift, you've come to the wrong place.

First, the setup: To make it as accessible as possible, this collection of first-person accounts features surtitles, sign language by the Deaf actor Dickie Hearts, and audio description by Alejandra Ospina, who uses a wheelchair. Although most of Dark Disabled Stories is devoted to Haddad's pitiless stories of navigating the indifferent world of the abled, his co-stars weigh in, too, on everything from taking the subway to picking up a sexual partner; as they make blazingly clear, even the simplest activity can require considerable guts and nerve.

In his passages, Haddad intensively details an existence of constant challenges even as he clinically examines his own foibles. Witnessing a fracas, involving in a woman in a wheelchair, unfolding on a New York bus -- it's one of those only-in-New York stories, with everyone weighing in, loudly and profanely -- he is quietly grateful: "Thank God it wasn't me who caused this ordeal." Meeting in a restaurant with a university administrator interested in booking one of his solo shows, Haddad needs to urinate but doesn't want to risk the treacherous path to the accessible restroom; waiting past the point of endurance sets off a series of disasters. Later, he asks himself, "Why was I embarrassed to show my disability in a business meeting when I was literally there to monetize my disability?" A Grindr meetup with an older man proves to be not as advertised. Among other things, "He's missing teeth. And I shouldn't judge. But he wasn't missing teeth in his profile. And, also, my father's a dentist."

Less amusing, but even more gripping, are Haddad's tales of trying to make it up the stairs of a subway station with his walker and -- maybe, maybe not -- the help of a stranger; a heartbreaking date that ends with him being ripped off to the tune of $40, and an encounter with a furious, by-the-book bus driver raising hell over a driverless car blocking his parking spot. "I have a handicapped person on the bus!" he keeps shouting, to Haddad's mortification. (This time, he is the apparent cause of trouble.) During the pandemic, on his way to meet a friend for a coffee date, he falls in the street, only to shrink away from the only person who offers help -- a unmasked homeless man - further declining to tip him for his assistance.

Ospina adds her own account of trying to get around a subway system when the elevators often don't work; a simple request for help from a transit employee is rejected, because "it's an insurance liability." "I'm not a liability," she replies, simply. Hearts, his signing verbally interpreted by Haddad, recalls an erotic encounter with a cop in Utah, adding that such relatively anonymous sessions are sometimes preferable, because "Dating is lonely. I want to find somebody I can bring home to my parents and say, 'Look, he signs!'"

And yet, as Haddad makes clear, real strength lies in being with happy with oneself. Offended by a neighborhood woman who wonders where he attends rehab, he sees his CP as a fact, not a curse. "When you come to be about ten or eleven years old, maybe twelve or thirteen, you kind of level out and that's sort of where you are, unless there's some sort of huge medical advancement. And even then, if one happens to appear and there's a cure, you have to think about, Do I want that to happen? Do I want that cure?"

It's one of many questions likely to rattle around in your head for days after seeing Dark Disabled Stories, which has been just about perfectly put together. Haddad and Hearts make a lively team -- the enormously expressive and boyishly charming Hearts makes an ideal foil to the mordantly funny Haddad -- and Ospina's deadpan narration often compounds the comedy. Jordan Fein's production never puts a foot wrong, offering an inside-out view of a world many of us never seriously think about; it is an authentically mind-expanding entertainment. It also benefits from a clever production design that strongly underlines the play's themes. The playful pink set by the collective known as DOTS features the title, rendered twice (once upside down) in plush fabric letters. Kameron Neal's video design includes many wittily rendered graphics and a fascinating cerebral palsy PSA from the 1950s, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Oona Curley's lighting adds its own notes of color and Kathy Ruvuna's sound design amusingly includes the opening musical vamp from Stephen Sondheim's "Another Hundred People," used here as a signifier for the craziness of urban life.

"I try to make disability funny so that non-disabled people can understand it and open themselves to it and realize that it's not so scary, so dark," Haddad says, before insisting that tonight will be different "I'm a naturally comedic person, but...not everything is accessible to us, so why should we try to make our experiences accessible to you?" Whatever he intends with Dark Disabled Stories, you are likely to leave it with a more profound understanding of a basic fact: Disabled people don't need our sympathy; they need to be better integrated into a society that works for everyone. --David Barbour

(10 March 2023)

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