Theater Review: Handjob at the Echo Theater Company

Hjob-2
Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders

When the lights rise on Handjob, a play by Erik Patterson currently in its world premiere at the Echo Theater Company in Los Angeles, we meet Keith (Steven Culp). Keith is a gay, white writer, and he has hired Eddie (Michael Rishawn), a younger black man, to provide a service that at first glance seems sexual in nature. But it turns out Keith has simply hired Eddie to clean his apartment—while shirtless.

Hjob-5
Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders

In a subsequent scene, we meet Kevin (Stephen Guarino), another gay, white man who has hired Bradley (Ryan Nealy) to clean his apartment. The two sets of scenes are eerily similar—both sets of men struggle at first with the awkward arrangement, gradually opening up. There are issues of potential homophobia—Eddie identifies as straight, and states his discomfort when Keith tells a provocative story about a recent visit to the Russian baths. There are also issues of consent—in both storylines, a violation eventually occurs, and everyone must deal with the fallout. And, of course, there are issues of race—at one point Keith ignorantly tells Eddie he “doesn’t see him as black,” and Eddie cannot help but wonder if his race adds to Keith’s fantasy of watching him do housework. The connection between the two storylines is revealed later, and all of the tensions reach a boiling point that leads to an interesting discussion of boundaries and ethics.

Hjob-10
Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders

It is a bit uncomfortable that the Echo Theater Company is producing a piece that deals so heavily with race relations and ethics considering an ugly situation they found themselves in this July. Their production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over was abruptly canceled just days before performances were set to begin. The party line was irreconcilable artistic differences, but in a Facebook post, fired director Deena Selenow wrote: “I am a black woman directing a play written by a black woman, featuring black actors. I was fired, replaced by a white man, and yet my name appeared on the website and production material against my wishes until yesterday evening, once the show was officially pulled and all information was taken down from the site.” The white man in question is Chris Fields, founding artistic director of the Echo and director of this current production of Handjob. The Echo told The LA Times that the decision was a purely creative one, one made because the production was in poor shape and not up to usual standards. They also claim to have approached another black director to take over before the playwright pulled the licensing, and all parties agree that Selenow was eventually offered her job back if she agreed to work with a new design team (the original designers resigned in solidarity upon her firing). While only the parties involved know for sure what happened, the situation is not a good look for the Echo at all, and has put them on tenuous footing with many members of the Los Angeles theater community.

Hjob-25
Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders

Considering this production of Handjob in the context of what has been going on with the company illuminates some uncomfortable truths, particularly at the play’s end. Its final moments involve one of the white characters. During the course of the story he commits an act of sexual assault, but later insists it was “just a mistake” and that he does not deserve to be defined by it. But then, as he sadly contemplates his life and his choices alone onstage during the play’s final minutes, you begin to wonder who exactly you are supposed to feel bad for. It is an odd and misguided sequence that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, particularly considering the fact that a white man at the center of a recent race-related controversy directed this production.

Hjob-28
Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders

The cast is doing strong work, particularly Rishawn, who brings unexpected depth to Eddie. Guarino drew the loudest laughs from the audience in the second half of the play once he was able to let loose, and the entire piece plays with tone in interesting ways, switching from uncomfortable tension to dark humor in the blink of an eye. One perplexing element was the set (Amanda Knehans). Both Keith and Kevin repeatedly reference how messy and in need of cleaning their apartments are, but with the exception of a few stray items on the floor that are quickly straightened up in the first scene, the apartment seems to be in perfectly fine condition.

Hjob-3
Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders

Most of Patterson’s writing seems well-intentioned, and a lot of important ideas are circled. But many scenes become repetitive and overstay their welcome, making some sequences rather exhausting. The climax of the play (pun intended) involves a literal handjob performed onstage. While the penis used is prosthetic, it is still an intentionally provocative scene that will undoubtedly push the boundaries and comfort level of the audience—this is very much the intention. Ultimately, Handjob wants to start a conversation, but does not take any real stand as a piece of writing, which is unfortunate because under different circumstances—including, perhaps, being produced by a different theater company—it would be a conversation very much worth having.

Handjob runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through October 21st. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are $34 with the exception of Monday nights, which are $20 in advance or Pay-What-You-Can at the door, subject to availability. This production is recommended only for mature audiences. To purchase tickets, click here.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s