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'Handjob' Mixed Signals

(c) Rage

September 2019

By Tom Andrew

"With Handjob, I wanted to write a very gay play that deals with issues of race and representation I feel strongly about; a play that starts the kind of conversation I think we should all be having right now."

Playwright Erik Patterson
Photo courtesy Echo Theatre Company
Erik Patterson's new play Handjob gets its world premiere this month at the Echo Theater in Los Angeles. Patterson has been known for his politically charged dark comedies that explore sexuality, race, discrimination, death, HIV and addition. Handjob is the story of what happens when we make decisions based on signals we take the wrong way and how it affects those you may have gone too far with.

Patterson says that his ideas for these plays come out of things that he goes through himself. "You never know when a play's going to come to you," he shared. "Most of my plays are born out of something I experience. Handjob begins with a gay man hiring a shirtless male maid to clean his apartment, and then things get complicated. In real life, I also hired a shirtless cleaner and it was a fascinating experience. Things didn't go down the way they do in the play, but I remember I was having dinner with my friend and writing mentor, Laural Meade, and I told her may shirtless cleaner anecdote and she said ‘Oh, there's a play here,' and she was right."

Oddly enough, Patterson started out as an actor but realized that acting was not what he was really passionate about. "Ultimately, I didn't like acting enough to want to shave for auditions, wear contact lenses and thing about that side of the gig," he shared. "But I love plays and I love movies and I still wanted to be a storyteller… so I started writing."

Politics does play a part in Patterson's plays. Given the condition of the country today Patterson says that it's giving him plenty to write about now, and in future projects. "I'm horrified by our current administration," he admitted. "Sadly, this will inform the plays I write in the future, because we can't be silent in the face of so much corruption. With Handjob, I wanted to write a very gay play that deals with issues of race and representation I feel strongly about; a play that starts the kind of conversation I think we should all be having right now."

Steven Culp, Stephen Guarino, Ryan Nealy
Photo by Darrett Sanders

Playing the role of Keith, the playwright who is gay, is Steven Culp. Best known for his work on Desperate Housewives as Rex, husband of Bree Van de Kamp played by Marcia Cross. He was given the Handjob script by Echo Theatre Artistic Director Chris Fields and saw a challenge that he couldn't refuse. "Chris asked if was interested in the role of Keith," Culp said. "I looked at it and saw a very complex and challenging role that held out the possibility for me failing miserably in the attempt to portray it. So, I couldn't say no!"

When asked if playing the role of Keith was afar stretch from his role on Desperate Housewives, Culp's answer may surprise you. The actor was able to compare things in both characters that make them rather similar. "Well, it may not be afar from Desperate Housewives as you think. Rex (in that show) had sexual secrets, he carried around a good bit of guilt and shame," Cup said. "I thought he always felt a bit out of step with the rest of the world, and when the series began, I imagined he was in the middle of a full-blown existential crisis. That's not dissimilar to what goes on with Keith in Handjob. They're also characters who can both be quite witty."

Culp enjoys well-written plays and is willing to take a chance and be challenged on anything that comes his way. He also feels Patterson's play will invoke a decent amount of chatter. "This play will get people talking," Culp concluded. "There should be plenty of great lobby and after-theatre conversation, impassioned discussion and possibly arguments."

Echo Theatre Company's Handjob runs Wednesday, September 4th through Sunday, October 20 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angles. For tickets and more information, call 310.307.3753 or go to

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