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A CurtainUp Review

By Les Gutman

Mothers and sons. Mothers and gay sons. Mothers who were prostitutes and their gay sons who resulted from "business transactions". Expatriate British mothers who were prostitutes and their gay sons who resulted from business transactions, who became prostitutes themselves. Expatriate British mothers who were prostitutes but who now make change in a Las Vegas casino, and their gay sons who resulted from business transactions, who became prostitutes themselves and are now dying of AIDS. 

You may resist the notion that Luis Alfaro's Straight As A Line has anything to do with you, but soon enough you will run out of distancing mechanisms and surrender. You'll appreciate that the mother-son reünion that is its focus speaks directly and resonantly to you, and that another young playwright has mined this most complex sort of relationship and uncovered a fresh lode of insight. Alfaro, who boasts a MacArthur "Genius" grant among a laundry list of other honors, displays keen, unpredictable observations and an uncommon poetry in his writing. This doesn't suggest that he makes things tidy for us (or that the play lacks its share of clumsy moments early on, or a few lousy jokes.) He dives into unpleasantness head-first, and gleefully celebrates it with black comedy. Paulie (James Sie) doesn't give his Mum (Natsuko Ohama) an easy way out, and Alfaro doesn't give us one either.

One gets the feeling Paulie could have died without ever reconnecting with his mother -- they were that estranged -- but there is an equal sense that what transpires is inevitable. Their's is the sort of communication in which what is expressed conflicts harshly with what is meant; on some biological level, they both know it. Paulie has invited his Mum to come to New York, to watch him jump in front of an uptown express train. For a warm-up act, he has her go with him to get his nipple pierced. He also promises that if his suicide attempt fails, he'll move to Las Vegas and let her take care of him. 

As we hear the train approaching, the first of the play's fourteen scenes blacks out, and we next find Paulie lounging in his Mum's Las Vegas apartment. The hideous lure of Vegas, and the appeal of its risky but compelling mentality, engineers an off-beat but apt metaphor. We watch Paulie's decline against a pas de deux in which the duo push each other away as they pull each other closer, until we arrive at a scene that is strikingly reminiscent of the first. Paulie is now connected to an "IV" tube. As his Mum's hands gently caress his ravaged body, he asks her to pull out the IV and kill him. "Do it because you love me," he begs; "I'll leave it in because I don't." In her inverted world in which she ignores the ugly yet rarely has anything nice to say, she's come almost full circle; she'll get there in the end.

Mr. Sie has followed this play to New York from its West Coast production last year. (So has director Jon Lawrence Rivera.) His performance is fearless and uncompromising. We watch his painful, graphically-displayed decline, but we also see his transformation -- perhaps exposure is a better word -- as an arrogant, resentful imp becomes a vulnerable, sensitive, ultimately loving and forgiving son. That he is able to achieve all of this without sentimentality or outrageousness is a credit to his effort and of course to the direction as well.

A week or so ago, I reviewed Romulus Linney's adaptation of Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying (see link to review below) which chronicled the twin journey of a man sentenced to death and another guiding him to a sense of dignity as he finds his own along the way. This work reveals surprisingly similar parallel arcs -- more convincingly realized -- as Paulie's Mum gains from her son, in his final hours, "the gift of motherhood." Ms. Ohama's performance may not yet have found the agile elegance of the more practiced Mr. Sie, but it is quite poignant and affecting nonetheless. 

Rivera's direction achieves a simple fluidity, nicely enabled by Bob Phillip's set and Deborah Constantine's lighting. Music choices between scenes (sound credited to Eric Shim) provide a nice sense of story while at the same time reminding us what Vegas is all about. Less consistent are the Vaudeville routines punched between a number of scenes, finely performed but awkwardly over-emphasizing the play's noir sensibility. 

Alfaro's subject matter revisits intersecting topics that are far from unconsidered, but he has charted paths that are both fresh and impressive. His theme is patiently developed to a cumalative effect of considerable power -- not fully comprehended until it has percolated awhile. A promising new theatrical voice? No doubt. This play was a late substitution for the play Primary Stages originally announced as its season opener, but it's no second stringer. 

CurtainUp's review of A Lesson Before Dying

by Luis Alfaro
Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera

with Natsuko Ohama and James Sie 
Set Design: Bob Phillips
Lighting Design: Deborah Constantine
Sound Design: Eric Shim
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission 
Primary Stages, 354 West 54th Street (8/9 Avs.) (212) 333-4052
Opened 10/2/2000 closes 10/22/2000
Reviewed by Les Gutman 10/3 based on 9/29 performance

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