Tyler Everett, the protagonist of Dan Ireland-Reeves’s compelling play Bleach, takes a utilitarian view of whoring. A recent recruit to the world’s oldest profession, Tyler (Eamon Yates) has figured out how, on any given night, to reap maximal rewards at the intersection of human sexuality’s demand and supply curves.
Tyler’s decision to become an “escort” came about by chance when someone outside a nightclub offered him money for sex. After months cultivating a regular clientele, Tyler may not be a happy hooker, but he’s a contented one. “For the right price,” he tells the audience, “I’ll do anything.” This willingness to do anything and everything to please the customers is about to land Tyler in a pickle, transforming what seemed an easy living into a living nightmare.
On its well-crafted surface, Bleach is a potboiler in the vein of Aaron Mark’s Empanada Loca, the macabre one-actor vehicle in which Daphne Rubin-Vega gave a thrill-a-minute performance three seasons ago. Like Rubin-Vega, Yates makes quite a meal of Ireland-Reeves’s monodrama. But there’s far more to Bleach than sensationalism, and the most Grand Guignol moments of Tyler’s coke-fueled odyssey raise provocative moral questions timely for this dog-eat-dog moment in world history.
Tyler has no qualms, religious or secular, about commodifying sex. His “job” takes him to interesting places around the city and introduces him to a variety of men. Thanks to youthful vigor and performance-enhancing drugs and devices, he’s able to excel with any partner. And his appetite for sex (as well as the cocaine his johns provide) is so prodigious he may be classifiable as compulsive. As for the customers, they’re willing to pay him because they’re too insecure, aged, homely, secretive or lazy to make carnal connections in other ways. Surely transactions that satisfy the buyer and contribute to the seller’s solvency and amusement are what Tyler would call a “win-win.”
That sanguine view can’t survive a grim encounter, arranged and choreographed by an Upper East Side client, that involves both the client and a third party. That party—also, presumably, a prostitute—is little more than a boy and poignantly vulnerable.
“I wonder if he’s legal,” Tyler asks himself as he scrutinizes the younger escort. Tyler narrates what follows with unnerving detachment, devoid of the endearing qualities that marked his previous storytelling. As he finds himself unexpectedly aroused by danger and another person’s pain, Tyler capitulates to a fierce savagery that’s the antithesis of the live-and-let-live character he previously displayed. Suddenly his emotions—his life, as well—are out of control. Days later, when footage of the gruesome threesome goes viral on the Internet, Tyler observes savagery comparable to what he experienced in messages posted by nameless, faceless people who are repeatedly viewing the young hustler’s fate and sharing the hyperlink with others.
Women earning their keep with sex abound in drama and fiction, but male counterparts, other than Marlowe’s Piers Gaveston in Edward II and Laura Albert’s JT LeRoy, don’t spring as readily to mind. Tyler is a vivid, intricately developed character, closer to the courtesans of Balzac and Dumas than to desperate souls, like Sonya in Crime and Punishment or Nancy in Oliver Twist, who see no alternative to selling themselves. Yet, by the end of Bleach, Tyler too is desperate—sunk in a covert realm he couldn’t have imagined.
Directed by Zack Carey, Bleach is on view in a pop-up venue in Bushwick that accommodates only 10 spectators per performance. Scenic designer Joyce Hahn has outfitted the shabby basement apartment with thrift-shop items, such as a faux French provincial sofa, reflecting Tyler’s grandiose aspirations and his taste for the twee. The complex, colorful lighting plot by Jake Lemmenes and the sound design by Robert Kent transform the cramped playing space from the squalor of Tyler’s lair into various locations and distinguish the scenes set in the present from the script’s many flashbacks.
The producers of Bleach warn that there’s nudity in the show and require that all audience members be at least 18 years old. The nudity is a fleeting glimpse of the actor’s bare posterior—negligible compared to what’s on display in Slave Play at New York Theatre Workshop and Choir Boy at the Manhattan Theater Club. Despite its subject matter, Bleach is never prurient. On the contrary, it’s a compelling reflection on the long-term effect of compromised principles, and a depiction of what happens when one submits to “anything and everything” for material gain.
Bleach runs through March 10 at 637 Wilson Ave. (corner of Cooper Street) in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Performances are at 7 and 9 p.m. daily. Eamon Yates performs Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; Brendan George plays Tyler on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday (though there will be exceptions to that schedule). No one under 18 permitted. For information and tickets, call (212) 352-3101 or visit SpinCycleNYC.com.