The program for Queer in the U.S.A. states: “I ask you to transgress, to step beyond the bounds of reality and into a magical space where one man can play eight different characters with minimal set, sound and lighting.” There is no problem with one man playing eight characters or with having minimal technical accouterments.
But this statement also talks about magic, implying that by using its creativity and its willingness to suspend disbelief the audience will come away with a transcendent experience. This isn't the case.
Johnny, a 14-year-old boy from New Jersey, is bullied by his peers and taunted by his Glee Club teacher for being “a little light on your feet.” He soon splits for New York City to escape from his miserable life and find something better — particularly people who will appreciate him.
The casting of this role is crucial.
A teenage boy with the potential charisma would be ideal. Instead, we have writer/actor Manuel Simons, overweight and approaching middle age. Of course, he's asked us to enter a magical space where we can accept this as real. But is accepting such a thing the best choice for the play?
An alarming element of the performance is that it had no pace — or rather, it had only one pace, which flattened any sense of expectancy in the audience. Various lines used a repetitive stress pattern, making it difficult to listen. Pauses within lines were all but nonexistent. These problems eventually created an evening that seemed much longer than it actually was.
David, Johnny’s singing teacher in New York, is a caricature rather than a bona fide character. Although we see him many times, he never develops into a three-dimensional human being. As a character, he's labored rather than funny.
On the other hand, George, Johnny’s teenage friend in New York, is the most relaxed and believable character on stage. He gets the slang and speech just right and seems to have authentic feelings. With this characterization, Simons doesn’t seem like he’s struggling to prove something.
In the end, we're offered Johnny’s adulation of Bruce Springsteen as if it might solve his problems. We're a nation of rampant idolizers, but this seems a paltry dream on which to hang an abused gay teenager’s hopes.
(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)