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Review: 'Handjob'


September 11, 2019

By Terry Morgan

Erik Patterson’s new play, Handjob, aims to be provocative, and it succeeds in its goal. While the show features the explicit depiction of a sexual act (I bet you can guess which one), the playwright is going after bigger themes than sex alone. Issues such as consent, homophobia, racism and the depiction or lack of depiction of gay life in modern culture are a few of the subjects this work deftly explores. Patterson’s play is smart and very funny, and if its reach slightly exceeds its grasp, it’s no matter. The world premiere production by the Echo Theater Company is expertly acted and directed and genuinely thought-provoking in the best way.

Steven Culp and Michael Rishawn in Erik Patterson's Handjob at Atwater Village Theatre. (Photo by Darrett Sanders)

Keith (Steven Culp) has hired a “shirtless cleaner,” Eddie (Michael Rishawn), to tidy up his New York apartment while he watches. He’s made unfortunate assumptions about Eddie that turn out not to be true. In a similar situation, Kevin (Stephen Guarino) has hired Bradley (Ryan Nealy) to do the same kind of job, but the outcome is quite different. Elsewhere, a harried theatre director, Susan (Tamarra Graham), is forced to deal with a heated dispute between her cast members.

Culp is compelling as Keith, an intelligent man partially blind to his own sins, whose passion occasionally escapes his control. Rishawn brings a simmering intensity to his role and serves as the moral conscience of the piece. Nealy does solid work as the open-minded Bradley, and Graham excels as the frustrated director Susan, who initially tries to be politically correct but ultimately just lets loose in a brilliant torrent of anger. Finally, Guarino is superb and consistently hilarious as Kevin, especially during a scene in which his description of a group of internet searches becomes a fantastically elongated aria.

Director Chris Fields gets excellent work from his actors and takes what could have been a confusing series of overlapping plots and makes its intricacy crystal clear. Patterson’s dialogue displays a glorious abundance of sharp wit, and the play’s structure is clever and effective. Its only fault — and it’s a small one — is that it seems to take on too many issues at once, so that the power of the outrage in the final scene is somewhat diminished.

Handjob is not for everyone, but those open to the experience will find much to enjoy, appreciate and think about.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through Oct. 21. Running time: approximately one hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission.

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