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Review: 'Handjob'


September 19, 2019

By Michael Van Duzer

I first encountered playwright Erik Patterson with a production of Yellow Flesh/Alabaster Rose and immediately felt a kinship with his black comic sensibility and his sensitivity in crafting the wounded characters who populated that play. Over the years his plots have become more concise and focused, losing the sprawl of those youthful shows. But he has remained a fierce provocateur and his new play, Handjob continues his tradition of pushing the conventional dramatic envelope.

Steven Culp and Michael Rishawn
Photo (c) Darrett Sanders

Keith (Steven Culp) is a middle-aged, white playwright who has hired Eddie (Michael Rishawn), a young African American man to clean his home. Shirtless. For a produced playwright who presumably watches people and gathers stories, Keith is singularly clueless about how to hold a conversation with the hired help. He steps blithely into several verbal landmines concerning, race, sexuality and common courtesy. He will eventually cross an unwelcome physical boundary.

In a similar apartment Kevin (Stephen Guarino) is enjoying a similar visit from a different shirtless cleaner, Bradley (Ryan Nealy). The same sort of awkwardness we’ve seen is repeated in a snappier and more comic tone. Some of the conversation and stories echo the earlier scene. The big difference is that Bradley is willing to remove more than his shirt for the right price. This will lead to the titular handjob which is graphically enacted and then interrupted.

Patterson has structured a dramatic reveal here which seemed obvious to me but, as the friends I spoke with didn’t see it coming, I’ll not divulge the conceit. What it provokes is the reason Patterson wrote the play. A complex argument amongst most of the cast members ensues, opening the floodgates on the emotional battleground surrounding sexuality, consent, employee exploitation, appropriating another person’s life story, whether straight actors can portray gay characters, and more. If this sounds like a lot, it is. Patterson is passionate about these topics and his characters speak intelligently about them. But, rather than kitchen-sink drama, Handjob is everything but the kitchen-sink drama. The tenuous situation just can't believably support the many arguments which halt the actual drama.

The cast is uniformly strong, and they play even the trickiest and most uncomfortable moments with total conviction. Director Chris Fields keeps the action moving efficiently and makes sure the in-your-face moments don’t cross the line to feeling gratuitous.

There is much to admire in Handjob, but it feels like a bit of a misfire at the moment.

Echo Theater Company   September 7 – October 21, 2019

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