BWW Reviews: Storyteller's MAN OF THE HOUSE Offers Tale of Young Man's Search for Identity at Kennedy Center
Master storyteller David Gonzalez's newest creation, the Kennedy Center-commissioned Man of the House, offers an honest portrayal of a young teenager coming to terms with ideas of what family means and how familial circumstances, coupled with cultural heritage, shape his own identity.
The premise of the semi-autobiographical play is, on paper, an interesting one. Pablito (David Gonzalez), a 13 year old New Yorker living with his struggling single mother travels to Miami and secretly reconnects with his long-lost Cuban father. However, this current incarnation is faced with some challenges, which are likely to require attention if this piece is to have a successful future life.
As Pablito tells his story and introduces us to the people in it - making some use of flashbacks to explain how his father left and how his mother raised him - Gonzalez's tosses in a little bit of every kind of adolescent angst situation into the mix. We have curious Pablito meeting his absent, deadbeat father whose current work is shrouded in mystery. Whether he really works covertly on behalf of the US national security apparatus, as he explains to his son, or is involved in a nefarious organized crime unit never becomes completely clear to Pablito or the audience, but it is somewhat of a major plot point. We also have Pablito reminiscing about the impact his dad's departure had on how he grew up in New York, his relationship with the boys in the neighborhood, and his mother's financial struggles to raise him. Throw in some references to step-parents, his Cuban heritage (which only seems relevant given his father may have or may not have engaged in espionage against the Cuban government), and a few lessons about lying and taking responsibility for one's actions, and we have this show. Each element is only half-explored and the ones that are, seem to be aimed at no particular segment of the audience.
At times the tone of the discussion is juvenile, at other times it is adult in nature (the discussions of international brokering, in particular), and at other times still, the tone falls somewhere in between. As a result of the schizophrenic nature of the story, it's difficult to care how Pablito or his family ends up and to come away with a 'lesson learned' as is usually the case for theatre productions intended for youth.
If there is at least one lesson, it is that families can be defined in many ways and reconciliation is always possible even though it can be difficult. Nonetheless, there are far too many unnecessary and distracting twists and turns to get to that message, particularly if the piece is geared toward young audiences.
Characterization challenges compound this unfortunate situation.
Although Gonzalez is a strong enough actor to take on all of the characters in a somewhat realistic way - including the well-intentioned Pablito who maybe had to grow up a little too fast as a result of his family situation, but is still a kid at heart - he most of the time lacks the charisma and stage presence to make one really care enough about the predicament Pablito is facing.
Gonzalez does, however, come alive a bit more when music enters into the picture. As Gonzalez sings and/or plays guitar briefly - sometimes accompanied by keyboardist Daniel Kelly who has a certain flare for catchy music composition and performance - it's easier to feel for Pablito as he clamors for his own identity based on an understanding of where he comes from. As Pablito sings and plays about struggles he's facing, Gonzalez gives the audience authentic and heartfelt emotion.
Adequate lighting (Ken Willis) and video designs (Karen Jenson, who also directs the production) enhance the theatricality of the event, but they still cannot completely hide the fact that there is still much improvement that could be made to the script.
Nonetheless, kudos to Kennedy Center and Mr. Gonzalez to taking on this challenge to present an original piece - something that's a bit lacking in theatre for young audiences. There's enough of a foundation to make something special, but it's simply not there yet.
Running Time: 1 hour with no intermission.
Man of the House plays through November 3, 2013 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets to any remaining performances, purchase them online or call the box office at 202-467-4600.
For an interview with Mr. Gonzalez, click here.