BWW Review: A Powerful & Poignant MR. PARKER at Penguin Rep Theatre
Through Oct. 6 (PenguinRep.org).
Talk about creating a palpable sense of place through the artistry of stagecraft. As soon as I saw the set for Michael McKeever's play, Mr. Parker, I immediately assumed the funky little apartment, capped with a generous skylight and cluttered in the spirit of Bohemian bonhomie, was a Greenwich Village artist's studio. (Bravo! to scenic designer David Goldstein, lighting designer Jamie Roderick, and assistant scenic designer Matthew Herman.)
The atelier had belonged to Jeffrey McCabe, an avant garde artist of growing renown who died several months prior. At curtain rise, it's occupied by his 54-year-old boyfriend of 30 years/husband of six years, Terry Parker, and by Terry's bar pickup from the previous night, Uber driver Justin (who's half Terry's age and whose name Terry initially has trouble remembering.)
As Justin, Joe Chisholm makes a memorable entrance, in nothing but his bikini briefs. He and Derek Smith's Terry catch fire on stage right away, creating a chemistry that quickly rivets your attention on every word Mr. McKeever has written.
Terry still is struggling with the loss of the love of his life, made more wrenching by his approval that Jeffrey be taken off life support, and by another connection he has to Jeffrey's demise. Meeting Justin is the first glimmer of happiness he's known in many months.
Mr. McKeever uses the setup to comment on a range of interesting, relatable topics. There's the generation gap that is a source of friction between the men. There are familiar artifacts of modernity -- notably the ubiquitous, anti-social use of cellphones, something Jeffrey used in his art but never used on his person. Dating apps are dealt with, too, as Terry tells Justin, "Sex is just a swipe to the right."
The pair are enjoying each other, with the occasional differences to be expected. Justin is a font of Manhattan lore that entertains Terry. Joe Chisholm is ingratiating and fun to watch as he bounces around the apartment, enjoying what amounts to his new life with a sugar daddy.
SONNY BOY FRIEND
Into the picture comes Jeffrey's sister Cassie, brought to vivid life with a pungent performance by Mia Matthews. She's all fire-breathing business, which plays out as a theatrically ripe counterpoint to Terry's proclivity toward procrastination. She also casts a wary eye toward the new boy in Terry's life who could be his son.
Through Cassie, the playwright expresses a crisp cynicism about how art is valued, and, for that matter, what we consider to be art in the first place. She says that her brother "took everyday life and made people believe it is art." And was paid handsomely for it.
A MILESTONE FOR JOE BRANCATO
This is a very well-balanced production in every respect, the hallmark of savvy director Joe Brancato, who also is founding artistic director of Penguin Rep. He has a keen eye for what works and for what audiences like, and he unfailingly sends them away not only satisfied but impressed.
Beyond his fine work for Mr. Parker, Mr. Brancato deserves a bonus shout-out for reaching a major milestone as a director: this is his 200th production. He's been at it since he was a lad in the Bronx, staging shows in alleyways. He founded Penguin Rep in 1977, where he has directed 150 shows, plus another 50 or more in New York City -- including one in Yiddish for the legendary Joseph Papp.
Mr. Brancato also is known for his witty and eloquent pre-curtain speeches, personally welcoming the audience from the front of the house at every show. He likes to call theater "a holy place" as he exhorts patrons to completely turn off cellphones. He announced at the opening of this show that Penguin's recent production of Sabbath Girl will be mounted in Manhattan in January 2020.
Back to Mr. Parker... Mr. McKeever's script scores multiple points with its dramatic flourishes, its social commentary, and its smoothly crafted dialogue that somehow manages to be both leisurely in its authenticity and yet pointed, no mean feat.
The acting is first-rate, too. At its core is Derek Smith, who starred on Broadway in The Lion King for 10 years as Scar. He beautifully blends gravitas and vulnerability, owning the audience from the outset with an emotionally true, finely shaded monologue. His stage presence has a balletic fluidity that I found mesmerizing. Whether speaking or not, Mr. Smith's meaningful gazes, reactions, pauses all reflect an ingrained discipline belonging to the finest actors.
Penguin Rep has done it again, bringing to the 'burbs Manhattan-quality theater that enlightens us with topical, provocative, humane perspectives, even as it entertains us with utmost professionalism and panache.