Fathers & Sons
nytheatre.com review by Dan Kitrosser
September 16, 2009
"It's contrived!" yells Edwin, breaking his character in a scene with his acting partner/writer Richard. And for me, that moment summed up Fathers and Sons, Richard Hoehler's very weak play-within-a-play. Edwin, a 29-year-old Hispanic actor from Washington Heights, doesn't like how the first of the five one-acts ends in Richard's play "Fathers and Sons," and so he stops mid-line and speaks his mind. I tended to agree with the self-critical moment and then began to realize that the trouble with the play-within-a-play concept is that it very easily can be a double-edged sword: If the play-within-a-play is bad, then we don't want to see it, and if the play-within-a-play is good, we wonder why we have to see the play that houses it. Fathers and Sons, though dealing with issues as important as race, class, sexuality, alcoholism, and, of course, fathers and sons, falls subject to that double-edged sword and I left the theatre thinking: what a mess.
The play follows the last few days of the rehearsal process leading up to a backers audition for Richard's new play, "Fathers and Sons," a collection of one-acts that explore father-son dynamics. While we get to see, in parts, these one-acts, we are also privy to the father-son dynamic of the two performers, Richard and Edwin. Richard (Richard Hoehler), a has-been-who-never-was, is a white, gay teaching artist in the public schools and has taken the young and straight Edwin (Edwin Matos, Jr.) out from Washington Heights and pushed him through the downtown theatre rehearsal process. But immature Edwin forgets his lines, complains about the endings of the scenes, and has the gall to be three and a half hours late to the final rehearsal. Between Edwin's antics and Richard's berating of him, we see a father-son drama before our eyes, which conveniently compliments the scenes of the play-within-the-play.
It is most problematic that the acting of Hoehler and Matos inside the one-acts is far superior to that which comes between these scenes. Throughout Matos's performances in the one-acts, he is confident and relaxed, reacting to the conflicts naturally and believably. His physical and vocal range is put to the test when he plays Teddy, a mentally challenged man who is upset about moving to a group home, and he does a fine job. Actor-writer Hoehler is clearly capable of great performances. As an old Hispanic father, he doesn't hit one false note, and he clearly takes great delight in playing a witty gay theatre director with both bravura and ease. But unfortunately, when the two play "themselves," neither Matos nor Hoehler tugs at our heartstrings. They merely fight with one another, and this takes any and all nuance out of their performances.
The direction of Chris Dolman is at times brisk and energetic, as in the moments when the two actors begin a scene. The two dress themselves in the entirely transforming yet unobtrusive costumes designed by Jonathon Knipscher, pull a few chairs or a roll-away slat from Todd Edward Ivins's fun makeshift rehearsal hall set and boom: a new scene. But then, when Edwin and Richard begin to spar outside of their performing, the play falls into a boring spiral of Annoy-Yell-Resolve with many a pause and crossing-of-the-stage-when-angry. This is also a problem with the writing, but even as new revelations about characters' histories and emotions come forth, with the same blocking and emotional pacing, the play becomes obvious, repetitive, and boring.
The best of Richard's one-acts is the final one, which shows the cycle of abuse in an alcoholic family. Here, the character Rich has just been released from prison after 13 years for killing a kid while he was driving drunk. Now Rich is sick and wants to make amends with his son Ed, who we find out has developed a drinking problem of his own. Even though Rich had been the father Ed hated, now Rich is precisely the father Ed needs. The last image of the scene is the most powerful moment of the whole play—as Ed crawls into Richard's bed, the light slowly fades then rests dimly on them for a good few seconds. It is a beautiful moment, an older son, awkwardly sidling up to his sleeping destitute dad, trying to reclaim some innocence in a world where all he knows is guilt. It was the only time in the play where I felt Dolman and Hoehler let the action speak for itself, and I was amazed at the transformation of the actors. You felt the pain of Edwin Matos, Jr.'s Ed, you felt the joy of the redemption of Richard Hoehler's Rich. Their bodies, uncomfortably squished together on a twin bed, were unclean and natural, horrible and wholesome, and god how I wished the whole play would end there. With father and son in a bed in dim blue light.
But alas, it didn't. There was still more talking and more resolving and more spoon-feeding the audience with catharses and realizations. Richard Hoehler's play aims to cover a lot of ground, but I wish he could have just settled for the bed.