The Return of the Wayward Son
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
August 12, 2006
I was never sure exactly what was so wayward about Jimmy, the son in The Return of the Wayward Son. He is a young gay man who has escaped his oppressive family for a life in NYC. He finds a bar where men—much older men—are offering him the comfort of the dollar in exchange for the comfort of his youth. So, a hustler is born. But I was never convinced by this play that a prostitute constitutes a wayward person.
The playwright/director, Brian Fraley, claims his play is semi-autobiographical. So, ostensibly, Jimmy is he—but semi. And Jimmy comes across as just that—semi: half a full-flushed person. Fraley develops some memorable people in his play but oddly not the main character. Max Ferguson, who plays Jimmy, is a fine actor, and attempts every which way to reveal someone—anyone—but I practically could hear the echoes of Fraley's directions from rehearsals: "stay naïve, stay sweet, stay bored." Ennui can be a compelling conflict, if you're playing Hamlet, if you're reading Camus, but Fraley presents it as that clichéd Gen-XYZ cipher with prosaic problems and (holy shock!) making some paper by spanking a few daddies—my, how wayward.
But look beyond Jimmy's character and you'll find that Fraley is a gifted playwright. The bar where many of the scenes take place is lorded over by the verse-hurling bartender, Johnny, played with all the ribaldry and robustness necessary by Scot Wright. His lines and presence are often used only for transitions but they are rich and provocative. He has a musical number that's audacious, tender, and hysterical, and when he finished I finally got Fraley's idea of wayward: sometimes we don't abandon our home, our home abandons us, and with it, hope.
Fraley also proves at times to be a competent director, especially for the more salacious entanglements. We're confronted with erotic and lunatic scenes showing various modes of penetration. They're never tacky, but, yes, uncomfortable—let me restate that—YES! uncomfortable. They are superbly executed.
Tim Moore, who plays Ira, one of Jimmy's regular johns, best carries these scenes. I hate this to sound like I'm undermining the rest of the cast, but Moore's inerrant skill and uncompromised commitment to his role (despite technical glitches catching others off guard) made most everyone else look kind of, well, not bad, but plebeian beside him.
I find it hard to recommend this play as I saw it. Fraley uses a theatrical technique through most of the play where two separate conversations are juxtaposed and interspersed. It's very ambitious. Actors have to be engaged in a dialogue while also listening for cues happening in another conversation that they are supposed to be unaware of. The pacing and rhythm have to be perfect, otherwise we, the audience, stop listening; all we see are actors waiting or missing or jumping their cues. And that's pretty much what happened when I saw this play—and it happened a lot. So much so, sometimes I was blushing empathically for the actors. Perhaps it was first show nerves. I hope so.
Fraley's play has great potential. But for it to be profound he needs to create a central character, full and salient, not a watcher waiting in the high-rise woods.