HANDJOB

Credibility is strained and logic defied throughout a big chunk of Erik Peterson’s Handjob, an otherwise provocative, sensationally performed Echo Theater Company World Premiere.

Things start out straightforward enough, or perhaps that should be gayforward given the sexual desires inflamed in middle-aged writer Keith (Steven Culp) by the sculpted hunk (Michael Rishawn as Eddie) he’s hired to clean his apartment without benefit or encumbrance of shirt.

Eddie sets the rules. (You can look to your heart’s content but there’s no touching allowed.) He encourages conversation, but finds it frustrating when his recollection of his family’s homophobic reaction to his uncle’s long-ago coming out does not inspire a similarly revelatory response from Keith.

Instead, in a moment of folly, Keith commits a faux pas for which no apology can suffice.

Lights down on this pair and lights up on another middle-aged writer Kevin (Stephen Guarino), who has himself hired a sculpted hunk (Ryan Nealy as Bradley) to clean his apartment (which happens to look exactly like Keith’s) without benefit or encumbrance of shirt.

This time round, however, things go a bit differently. Not only is the scene played for wacky, sitcom-style laughs, Kevin’s coming out story is curiously identical to the one Eddie’s uncle experienced and Bradley, unlike Kevin, is more than willing to strip down to some buns-revealing undies for a fee and do even more for another forty bucks.

Just what the heck is going on here?

It eventually becomes clear what playwright Patterson has up his sleeve in a twist that may surprise even those who’ve had an inkling of why Couple # 2 bears uncanny similarities to Couple #1.

Handjob is, if nothing else, ambitious in its intention to provoke thought and discussion on issues as diverse as gay representation in the media, the role of theater in a rapidly changing world, the pros and cons of showing actual sex acts on stage, racial stereotyping and objectification (Eddie is African-American), the dearth of diversity in casting, sexual harassment in the workplace, how much liberty an actor should have in determining his character’s actions, and one man’s right to appropriate another man’s story as his own.

That’s perhaps too much to fit into ninety-five minutes, but Patterson manages to do so in a play that had me pretty much in the palm of its hand (forgive the pun) until a couple of credibility/logic-defying sequences (impossible to discuss without spoilers, so stand alerted) snapped me out of its heretofore believable reality/realities.

Much of Handjob’s midsection operates on the presumption that a heterosexual actor performing a scene in which has agreed to be masturbated on stage in full view of an audience would be physically capable of doing so at the drop of a jock strap (even at rehearsals) with his male member at full mast without benefit of artificial accoutrements. (You may buy it, but I don’t.)

A later section revolves around accusations of racist casting that might make sense were play-within-a-play director Susan (Tamarra Graham) not herself a black woman who presumably would have had more of a say in who got cast than the writer, and whose name, incredibly, never once comes up in the supposedly racist writer’s self defense, making for another scene I just couldn’t swallow.

Handjob’s entire first half (and a powerful closing sequence that poses the question of who has the right to tell someone else’s story) are so strong, it’s a shame Patterson’s play falls apart in the middle, especially given Chris Fields’ impeccable direction and some absolutely fabulous performances.

Culp takes Keith from well-meaning and reasonable to defensive and confrontational to devastating effect opposite a commanding Rishawn, whose acting chops equal his prodigious physical attributes.

Guarino’s hilarious take on a repressed, obsessive gay man and Nealy’s sexy, cocky Jersey Boy maid are just half of what the dynamic duo get to do, and Graham makes for a fiery, outspoken Susan caught smack dab in the middle of a duel between a writer and a couple of actors who think they know best.

Gloria Ines’s cameo as the well-meaning but flustered Kate completes the cast.

If nothing else, Handjob’s World Premiere serves as a talent showcase for its world-class production design team, from Amanda Knehans’ realistically cluttered apartment set to Ann Closs-Farley’s character-appropriate costumes to Jared A. Sayeg’s stage reality-meets-actual reality lighting to Jeff Gardner’s pitch-perfect, eclectic sound design.

Handjob is produced by Field and Rachael Zambias. Ariel Labasan is associate producer. Rebecca Schoenberg is production stage manager.  Benjamin Toubia, LMFT is intimacy coach. Casting is by Meg Fister. Cole Taylor is standby for Eddie.

Theatre Of NOTE’s He Asked For It and Echo Theater Company’s One Of The Nice Ones demonstrated Erik Patterson’s knack for delivering “I didn’t see that coming” twists and Handjob is no exception. If only I could have bought into all those twists this time round.

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The Echo Theater Company @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Through October 28. Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 4:00. Reservations: 310 307-3753
www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

–Steven Stanley
September 7, 2019
Photos: Darrett Sanders

 

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