Teen Disharmony

Teen angst weighs heavily on the characters in The Gay Barber's Apartment, Larry Traiger's high school soap opera receiving a shoestring production from Half Assiduity Arts.

Disaffected youth have been a staple of plays since Wedekind, who supplied the original for Broadway’s current hit Spring Awakening, which also has oppressed, aimless youth caught in the throes of romance. Traiger’s play is bleaker than the Tony-winner, mixing the anomie-ridden types from This Is Our Youth with hopeless romantic relationships. The protagonists here, the handsome Henry (Alex Hurt, who also directed) and the nebbishy Jonas (Joseph Aniska, who did the lighting), take drugs, and seem to have little prospect of finding their soulmates, if such females exist.

The macho Henry, who occasionally indulges in fight club antics, is obsessed with sexual pleasure rather than a loving relationship. Jonas, who is sleeping with a girl named Mary (Carolina Mesarina), chafes at shopping for prom clothes with her, endures a regimen of abstinence that she imposes, apparently because he doesn't share Mary's opinion of romantic movies, and even receives a pummeling at one point.

The guys gossip about who's sleeping with whom and bet on each other's worst instincts, but their entanglements seem like a tempest in a teapot. Yet Henry and Jonas exult at their success at arriving in the adult world and escaping high school, dominated by a fearsome Dean Hunt (they are presumably attending a private institution). The stern, officious older adult is reminiscent of teen comedies or Saturday morning shows like Saved by the Bell. But Jeff Pucillo, the only Equity member of the cast, brings confidence and polish to the vaguely silly role—in a contrast to the other performances. Hunt enters abruptly into the minds/memories of his former students as a larger-than-life tyrant who bellows at their transgressions. At one point Pucillo jumps through an open window onto a bed, and he descends in a parachute in the niftiest piece of Hurt’s generally ramshackle staging. (In the opening scene, for instance, Jonas is receiving a haircut from the title character and is wearing aviator sunglasses—what barber gives a haircut to someone wearing glasses? What person who cares about his grooming leaves glasses on during a haircut?)

The barber of the title, Venice (J. Stephen Brantley), provides a haven for the youths as well as drugs and a friendly ear, in contrast to the dean. Yet Traiger leaves undeveloped this odd relationship between a 45-year-old gay man and two straight teenagers. It’s apparently not exploitative, but one wonders how they met and why straight adolescents are so comfortable with an older gay man. Without some compelling explanation, the situation remains puzzling and unconvincing.

Unfortunately, on the only preview night, the production was clearly having severe technical problems that may have thrown off the cast. Occasional monologues were intended to be accompanied by lighting changes, signaled with a motion of the actors’ hands. If there was a lighting cue that worked all evening, it must have been an accident. Stretches of awkward silence took the air out of some scenes, and the time shifts among them were difficult to follow: scenes encompass high school as well as college. Still, Pucillo and Hurt managed to deliver solid work amid the chaos.

Chuck Pukanecz’s set was pretty effective for a budget that probably couldn’t buy a Happy Meal. The barber’s apartment didn’t look like that of a gay man; it would have seemed sparse to Mother Teresa. But Pukanecz managed to create a variety of playing areas on a cramped stage, including apartments, one with an adjoining room, and a park. The scene shifts were sometimes clumsy, but his invention was admirable (and a painted drop by “the artist currently known as Walter” suited the space well).

Traiger’s play has some interesting writing, especially a monologue about a Thanksgiving turkey, and the young, personable author himself takes tickets and offers drinks. Likable as he is, this play doesn’t offer much of a meal, let alone trimmings.

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