Manliness, Manly Mess

Billed as “two plays about men” with all-male casts, BALLS! The Testosterone Plays of Monica Bauer is currently playing a limited run at the WorkShop Theatre Main Stage through December 5. BALLS! is a compelling evening of theater showcasing some wonderful acting and keen writing. The show’s press release describes BALLS! as “two plays about marriage, one gay, and one straight,” but it is really more about the many iterations of what it means to be a man — and a husband — in contemporary society. Various guises of manhood are displayed throughout the show — young, old, gay, straight. This is what makes BALLS! so intriguing. The 30-minute one-act titled Two Men Walked into a Bar that leads off the show starts as three actors enter the stage and literally sound off before the action begins. It is late at night in a seedy bar in Alabama and two Marine veterans (one from Vietnam, the other Iraq) engage in an escalating face off about their respective lives and wives.

The dramatic structure of this piece is very sound, befitting Bauer’s status as a writing fellow at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and former teaching fellow in the graduate playwriting program at Boston University, where she received her MA in playwriting. Each man slowly reveals his own predicament and the particulars surrounding his situation as the liquor flows and time ticks by.

As the Iraq vet, Aaron Gonzalez has a youthful swagger that acts as a mask to his physical and emotional pain. Nick Ruggeri as the seasoned Vietnam vet seethes with anger and resentment. Both actors bring multiple shades to their portrayals.

But Two Men is the more problematic of the two pieces. It is too overwrought, with sheer physicality taking the place of truer emotion. Perhaps this is meant to represent the “testosterone” section of the play’s title, but it ends up ringing a bit false, as the does the murderous subplot in this section (which I won’t give away to avoid spoiling the ending). However, the cast gives it their all and sells the script regardless of the flaws.

The nearly one-hour solo piece, Made for Each Other, that makes up the second half of the show features a tour de force performance by actor John Fico (A.R. Gurney’s Screen Play at The Flea). Billed as “a boy meets boy love story in the shadow of Alzheimer’s,” it chronicles the fall-out from a marriage proposal on the third date between two middle-aged gay men.

Fico is marvelous and captivating on stage by himself, playing four distinct roles, addressing the audience as each individual character, and revealing the bittersweet romance between the two lovers and their individual struggles with their families and sexualities. Made for Each Other recently appeared in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, where it was nominated for Outstanding Solo Show and Best Actor in a Solo Show. The playwright wrote the piece specifically for Fico — and it shows. He is born to play these parts and dives deep into each character with personal touches and tics that add nuance and subtlety to each portrayal.

My only concern with Made for Each Other is the inclusion of the Alzheimer’s suffering mother as one of the roles. Don’t get me wrong — she is a colorful character and Fico does a wonderful job with her. But she seems out of place in a show called BALLS! that focuses primarily on men and what it means to be a man.

As directed by John Fitzgibbon and evocatively lit by lighting designer David S. Goldstein, BALLS! The Testosterone Plays of Monica Bauer will particularly appeal to theater lovers who revel in the black box experience — an intimate space with little to no scenery that produces theatrical magic with a minimum of fuss and maximum talent. And with John Fico's outstanding solo performance as the highlight, there is certainly a lot of talent onstage in BALLS!

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