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Theatre in Review: Not About Me (Theatre for the New City)

Sharon Ullrick, Mateo d'Amato. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Not About Me may be the most disingenuous title of the season; despite an ample supporting cast, Eduardo Machado's new play is all about him -- and, in his telling, his devastating effect on others. It's a memory piece, triggered by COVID lockdown, and focusing mostly on his salad days when he was young and green. That would be the 1980s, when, we are told, he was a rising writer and actor, catnip to men and women and alike. For all I know, this could be a strictly factual account, but, as presented here, you'll have to take most of the play's assertions on faith. The author presents himself as both irresistible and insufferable, and whether he is criticizing himself or bragging, I cannot say.

Machado, circa 1981, describes himself as a bisexual, which means he is married to a much older woman but gets off on teasing men of his acquaintance when not making clandestine trips to St. Mark's Baths for anonymous encounters. The bisexual dodge, never convincing to begin with, becomes increasingly hard to take since we never see his wife, who is in Los Angeles, doing God knows what; after a while, I began to wonder if she might not be a figment of his imagination, like George and Martha's son in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The young Machado also affects an ingenuousness that is hard to buy: "What made him think he could kiss me?," he asks about Gerald, an attractive theatre director who comes on strong. Well, doll, that sometimes happens to cute young guys dancing around provocatively in gay bars. Then again, Eduardo isn't the only one who struggles to embrace the obvious. "You lead a double life," comments his friend, Tommy. "Maybe," Eduardo replies. Ya think?

Indeed, it is hard to know what to make of Eduardo, a largely passive figure, although in Mateo d'Amato's performance he is given to extreme posing and shouting. On visits to his mystery spouse, he hangs out with Marjorie, a great actress dying of liver cancer, who wants to spend her remaining time with him, endlessly rehearsing the Tennessee Williams one-act Talk Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. Back in New York, Eduardo has a few unsatisfying tumbles with Donna, a rising star who is seen, in succession, as an abused wife, a sexual predator, and a born-again Christian who drags him to a conversion ceremony, unintentionally helping to push him out of the closet.

Meanwhile, there's a new virus in town, and all of Eduardo's male friends are, justifiably, terrified. Eduardo, however, can't quite focus on the threat; what is the possibility of AIDS compared to the upsetting news that the men in his circle have all slept with each other, leaving him out of the action? In any case, he establishes a friends-with-benefits routine with nice-guy Tommy, although the latter will eventually turn away from him in disgust. It is left to another ex-friend, George, to, several years later, accuse Eduardo of dumping his wife for a younger male lover, who is loaded with family money and criminal connections. By the way, we don't see him either.

All these episodes and more unfold in helter-skelter fashion, most of them lacking in emotional subtext. Eduardo, as presented here, is a flibbertigibbet, blithely unafraid of using others and highly receptive to admiration from any source. His two spousal relationships are left offstage. We are told that Gerald is the love of his life, but there's little evidence for that. Marjorie insists that Eduardo is a brilliant actor, but you'll have to take her word for it. The absence of a dramatic structure, to say nothing of a clear point of view about the protagonist, contributes to the production's rudderless feeling, which is not helped by Machado's direction. This sort of dramatic self-examination can pay off, dramatically, but the writing and direction are too crude to allow for any real engagement. Most of the cast seems adrift, but Charles Manning is touching as Tommy, who survives the plague only to sink into a disappointed middle-age, and, at the performance I attended, understudy Sharon Ullrick was convincing as Marjorie, clinging to her work even as death closes in.

Machado has written many fine and interesting plays, most of them drawing on his life and Cuban heritage, but perhaps he has yet to gain perspective on this aspect of his life story. If fleshed out and rendered with a stronger, surer point of view, Not About Me could be a powerful coming-of-age tale. As it stands, however, it isn't ready to be seen. In its current form, it is difficult to understand what its creator was thinking. --David Barbour

(23 January 2023)

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