It’s getting a little late in the day for a contemporary coming-out comedy. Isn’t that battle pretty much over, and aren’t plays like Gemini and Torch Song Trilogy period pieces by now? That said, David Adam Gill gets a fair amount of comic mileage out of Experimenting with Katz, his “new comedic play” about, shades of Albert Innaurato or Harvey Fierstein, Michael Katz (Paul Pakler), a youngish gay man with self-esteem issues, romantic issues, and severe mother issues. Gill hasn’t quite merged his characters and themes into a cohesive whole, and he needs to acquaint himself with the Delete key—Katz, small as it is, runs more than 2½ hours. But he knows how to make us laugh, and, a few contrivances notwithstanding, care a little, too.
Michael, a Queens native, has moved to Chicago, where he’s recovering from a two-years-ago relationship gone wrong, aided by a couple of good friends. Adelle (a bright Marie Elena O’Brien) is the sort of best-girlfriend every gay man should have. And Ella (Jacob Lovendahl, with expressive body language and spot-on timing), a self-described “gender illusionist,” mixes insightful truths and ripe Eve Arden wisecracks while skillfully sashaying in high heels. Things may be looking up romantically, too, as Michael has just met Russell (Andrew Glaszek), a good-looking and kindhearted local weatherman who’s kissing him within two minutes. What could go wrong?
Mom. Enter Kitty (Anne Newhall), in a surprise visit from Queens during an October snowstorm. She’s more than a handful, and both overwritten and overacted. Stereotypically Jewish and insanely homophobic—Michael is “a sick person who does sick things,” as far as she’s concerned—she refuses to accept her son’s sexuality and consults the National Enquirer for success stories about conversion therapy. She’s not Orthodox, or if she is, she sure drinks a lot of non-kosher wine, and you wonder what part of Queens she could be from—as far as social issues, she seems to be living in 1953. Determined to deliver Michael to heterosexual marriage and fatherhood, she meets, in an unpersuasive coincidence, Ella, whom she mistakes for an actual woman, and sets them up on a blind date—Ella, amused at the situation, keeps his/her identity secret. Hilarity ensues, to an extent.
A few questions. First, Michael keeps going on about hating the cold and snow, so what’s he doing in Chicago? Second, aside from expressing an unfulfilled interest in creating art, what does he do, and how can he afford a large lakeview apartment in Boystown? Third, and most crucially, what does the too-good-to-be-believable Russell see in him? Michael is self-centered, whiny, and overanalytical, while Russell is warm, smart, well-adjusted, and the more attractive of the two by far; it’s like one of those uncomfortable early Woody Allen movies where Diane Keaton or Mariel Hemingway is chasing after him, the masturbatory dream of a nebbish. Pakler and Glaszek, both well cast physically, get something of a chemistry going, but we don’t give their love story better than even odds.
The saving graces: Gill writes funny, with a keen ear for contemporary dialogue and neuroses, and John Robert Tillotson directs with varying rhythms and an ability to plumb whatever depths there are in a pretty superficial comedy. Yes, the emphasis is on the jokes, but life lessons are eventually dragged in—the reasons behind the mother-son antipathy, the compromises made in romantic pursuits, the difficulty of forgetting the pains of the past—and it’s to the credit of both writer and director that they’re handled with style and relative subtlety. Each character gets a good little speech—Ella’s is particularly fine—and while you won’t buy (spoiler alert, but not really) Kitty’s eventual coming around to her son’s lifestyle, you’re glad it happens.
TheaterLab is a very white space with a very white set (by Matthew S. Crane), and you’re advised to sit on the right as you come in, or you’ll miss all the scene-setting projections (by Heather M. Crocker, who also did the lighting). Julia Kulaya’s costume design and Janet Bentley’s sound design are expert. Gill needs to edit, and to do something about a couple of far-fetched plot points—one, with Michael making a long confession to Russell, not realizing that Russell has left the apartment and Kitty’s there, makes no sense whatever, because why on earth wouldn’t he look at who he’s talking to? But does Experimenting with Katz offer laughs and heart? It does. Let’s call it promising.
The New Ambassadors Theatre Company and Julia Botero production of Experimenting with Katz runs through Oct. 14 at 357 W. 36th St., 3rd floor. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For information and tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit theaterlabnyc.com/events/experimenting-with-katz.