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Review: 'Handjob'


September 9, 2019

By Dan Berkowitz

When the lights go up on Erik Patterson’s Handjob, now having its World Premiere engagement by the Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, we’re in a New York City apartment. The occupant, a middle-aged white guy named Keith (Steven Culp) is in the midst of a conversation with his recently-arrived guest, a considerably younger black guy named Eddie (Michael Rishawn). The two stand facing each other, a couple of feet apart, and the moment is tense.

Steven Culp (L) and Michael Rishawn.
Photo: Darrett Sanders

Keith has hired Eddie to do… something… and it’s awkward for Keith, as he’s never done anything like this. Eddie, on the other hand, is smiling and almost preternaturally relaxed – he’s done this a lot.

What exactly is “this”? For a couple of minutes, we’re confused, but titillated. Eddie removes his sweatshirt, revealing a dazzling torso, with pecs and abs that look photoshopped, even though we can see he’s a real guy, standing about 15 feet from us. There’s talk of payment, which Eddie assures Keith he doesn’t need to give him till “after.” Keith tells Eddie he has “supplies” and produces a cardboard box: Eddie looks into it, and with a wink and a smirk, pulls out and dons a pair of latex gloves while making a remark about being “safe.”

But then Eddie pulls from the box a small, pinkish feather duster, and begins delicately cleaning the cluttered bookshelves. And we learn Keith has hired Eddie as a “shirtless cleaner” – one of those things middle-aged gay guys do to treat themselves to eye candy while making sure their homes don’t get filled with dust bunnies.

The remainder of this first scene of the play is hilarious, but also has a few detours into drama: Keith is gay, but Eddie is straight, and cleaning shirtless is only a money-making gig as far as he’s concerned. Yes, you can watch him as he cleans with torso bared (and pants on), but the job is a hands-off proposition, as Keith learns when he gropes – ugh, what an ugly word! – Eddie, and the young man reacts angrily.

L-R: Steven Culp, Stephen Guarino, Ryan Neely.
Photo: Darrett Sanders

Then the lights dim, Keith and Eddie exit, and the lights come up on Kevin (Stephen Guarino), another middle-aged gay guy, engaged in conversation with Bradley (Ryan Nealy), another well-built young guy. Aside from being in the same apartment, there are other similarities: Kevin, who lives in the apartment, has hired Bradley to be a “shirtless cleaner” and is awkwardly sussing out the situation. Bradley, relaxed and smiling, tries to put him at his ease. A number of the lines they speak are the same as we’ve heard from Keith and Eddie.

But there are differences. Where Eddie was black, Bradley is white. And while Bradley is also heterosexual, he’s not quite as rigid about boundaries as was Eddie. For a little extra cash, he’ll remove his pants as well as his shirt. And while his torso might not be quite as chiseled as Eddie’s, the bulge in his jockstrap holds promise. Especially when he says that – for a little more cash – Kevin can touch it. And for even a little more money, Kevin can…

Well, things start to get a bit explicit, when suddenly Bradley stops the action, and the lights don’t dim, but change, and…

To say exactly what happens next would probably qualify as a spoiler, so I’ll shut up. Suffice it to say that if you’re confused at this point – as I was – you’ll be even more confused for another minute or two. And will start to wonder what the hell is going on.

But then you’ll stop being confused, and start becoming fascinated. Because, as it turns out, Handjob is one of those rare plays that manages to surprise and startle as much as entertain – and this is a profoundly good thing.

Steven Culp.
Photo: Darrett Sanders

I won’t reveal the twists and turns – you need to see them yourselves – except to say that they’re ingeniously done, and unexpected. The audience is lulled into thinking it’s seeing one kind of play for the better part of an hour, only to be turned around and led on a merry chase for the rest of the production’s 90 or so minutes. The journey is as dazzling as Eddie’s abs, and the acting, directing, and production are all up to the task.

The cast doesn’t have a weak link, and each actor makes his or her character unique and quirky and weird and attractive and like no one you’ve seen before: that goes for the four men we’ve seen in the first couple of scenes, as well as Susan (Tamarra Graham) and Kate (Gloria Ines), who appear unexpectedly about halfway through and play a major part in the wackiness that is Handjob.

The set by Amanda Knehans, costumes by Ann Closs-Farley, lighting by Jared A. Sayeg, and sound by Jeff Gardner do just what they need to do – perfectly serve the play without a false note.

As does the direction by Chris Fields, who keeps the pace crackling, but has enough confidence in the material and his actors to allow substantial pauses when required.

I used the word “ingenious” earlier, and I’ll repeat it here: Mr. Patterson has ingeniously structured the play, and written it with delight: it’s laugh-out-loud funny until it isn’t, and when it stops being funny, it confronts us with ideas we really should think about seriously.

Is it perfect? No. The middle section goes on about five minutes too long, and becomes more than a touch preachy toward the end of it. The last scene is also a few minutes too long, and suffers from the author’s trying too hard to make us “get” what he’s been trying to say: if the audience hasn’t glommed on to it by then, saying it several more times won’t help. And the very end is puzzling and unsatisfactory: it’s as if Mr. Patterson couldn’t really decide how to end the play, so made it just stop. And yes, I use the word “just” advisedly.

But who needs “perfect”? Handjob is so imaginative and funny and outrageous and startling that I’ll take it, warts and all. So should you.

Written by Erik Patterson
Directed by Chris Fields

Through October 21

Echo Theater Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Tickets: 310-307-3753 or

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