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When is a "Handjob" more than a Handjob?


September 30, 2019

By Anthony Byrnes

Erik Patterson's play "Handjob" does indeed include a handjob.

So if you're the kind of person who might be offended by that or by male frontal nudity then this play might, oddly, be perfect for you.

Stick with me.

The setting is a sort of messy New York apartment. Nothing too fancy but there's exposed brick, a ton of books and magazines strewn about. Our protagonist is a gay, white writer who's just hired someone to clean his place. Well, sort of. He's hired a buff guy to come and take his shirt off and clean his place.

This makes our writer very excited and more than a little nervous. He's never done this before. He has no idea how this works. Is it about cleaning? Is it about sex? Can he watch? Can he touch? Oh so many questions to understand the parameters.

Just to make things more complicated the guy who shows up (who by the way is super buff) just happens to be black and also straight. Awkward. The opening scene has our two characters navigating this territory a little gingerly.

Ryan Nealy und Stephen Guarino in "Handjob."
Photo (c) Darrett Sanders

Then, the scene shifts and we see the same scene again but this time with two white actors. It's the same scene but it's just slightly different. It's not really clear yet why or how.

This pattern repeats where we see a scene and then its echo played out with subtle but important changes.

Then we get to the handjob and the whole thing explodes. *Not in that way* but structurally. Suddenly the play shifts, complicates, doubles back. A story you thought you had a sense for, and frankly had gotten a bit ahead of, cracks itself open and becomes simultaneously deeper and funnier, much funnier.

I don't want to give too much away here because the mechanics of the play, like a whodunnit, depend on audience surprise. Our playwright masterfully plays on what the audience knows, maybe even what they are thinking, and certainly how charged that male nudity is.

So a play that's about a handjob and a little sex work side hussle - becomes about a lot more. Suddenly we're dealing with questions of race and representation and consent and writer's privilege and normalizing gay stories and gun violence - and rather than feeling like it's all a forced mess, it feels like the conversations we need to be having.

Erik Patterson is an LA playwright who delights in shocking audiences by pressing against our taboos or prejudices. In some of his earlier plays this passion felt a little clumsy if terribly clear. A bit like an artist who was saying 'I see the world this way and I'm going to shock you with that and I don't care what you think!' The plays had the vitality of a rebellious teenager proudly proclaiming their own voice. "Handjob" is different. You can feel the writer maturing. He cares what we think and he's going to complicate it.

If you know Mr. Patterson's work, that's exciting. If you don't "Handjob" is a great way to start.

"Handjob" plays at the Echo Theatre Company in Atwater Village through October 28th.

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