Two Men Talking
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
February 29, 2008
Secrets, especially those of a painfully personal type, are typically stored inside, creating walls, headaches and hypertension. But, Paul Browde and Murray Nossel, a psychiatrist and a documentary filmmaker, respectively, stretch their stage legs in Two Men Talking, with an autobiographical chronicle that shows the healing power of storytelling. Having lived the stories they are telling and having performed this evolving piece for ten years, the worst is over, the confessions are out, and they are free to exalt in a bit of fun with the dark skeletons that they freely share. What we see on stage are two friends, each comfortable in his skin, exuberant about the lives they are currently living.
Browde and Nossel bring a warm, cozy feeling to the Barrow Street Theatre in their "live performance of friendship." They weave together tales about growing up in South Africa, their homosexuality, and the eventual discovery that Browde is HIV+, heavy topics that they communicate in a way that is both casual and easy to watch. Browde has been living with his condition for 20 years, and says he decided early on that whatever happened, he was going to live life fiercely. The show conveys this.
With occasional chairs and a wooden bench, the men reenact moments of their young, reluctant friendship. Browde, toughened by a group of roughs, is embarrassed to be seen with Nossel, a thin, nerdy youth. But he likes him. Years later, they meet again: Browde in his medical white jacket, and Nossel, all in black, circled by an adoring group of artistic types. Nossel snubs him. Later yet, Browde attends a play Nossel has written and goes back stage. Here, he apologizes for a caustic comment he made so many years ago. The apology relieves both of unwanted baggage, and opens the way for their friendship. Some lovely singing further highlights how in sync they are. Reenactments and songs aside, Browde and Nossel mostly talk—talk and tell stories.
The evening begins crisply with a throwback. The two men, at age 12, sit side by side in a classroom. Their teacher has asked the students to look to their neighbor and ask him to tell his story. Nossel complains he doesn't know any, and Browde prods that that in itself is his story. The anecdote is short, maybe less than a minute, and as the evening progresses, the anecdotes that are alternately told by the two men become more expressive and expansive—and, of course, the issues become more serious as well. With the gravity comes a loose, less rehearsed telling, with Nossel interjecting a detail that Browde either overlooks or is new to the piece. Browde and Nossel are appealing, friendly men, and their enthusiasm easily reaches the audience. At one point, Nossel is hard put to suppress unscripted laughter, and Browde says, "Why are you laughing?" The audience laughs too and they move on. The spontaneity lends an amusing, unpredictable air.
However, diversions on stage can also turn into needless exposition that drags, and on occasion I asked myself, "Now, what's the point, here?" More than once I lost sight of sequence, locations, ages. But, it was momentary, and for the most part, of little consequence, because Two Men Talking is not a play. It is more like a private journal made public, allowing an audience a privileged peek into the catharsis of two men. One of the best dramatic moments is Browde's speech to a group of psychiatrists where he admonishes them about the derogatory remarks they make about their HIV+ patients as he simultaneously reveals that he is also HIV+. This is an example of powerful storytelling.
Engaging as it is, Two Men Talking could use a stronger thread to hold the stories together. On occasion, anecdotes seem to be inserted with no apparent reason. And, occasionally, there are missed opportunities. For example, Nossel, in a previous career as a social worker, claims he will never work with AIDS patients because he watched daily as young men died outside his apartment building on Christopher Street. But, suddenly, he is working with AIDS patients. I got caught up in a host of questions. Was this work assigned by school or if it is after school, did he have a change of heart because of Browde? If it was assigned, why didn't he refuse—just as in an earlier, stirring episode he refused to carry a gun during his army stint? In the end, the questions and probably the answers were unimportant as the real point of the story demonstrated a moment of discovery for Nossel. It was in this job that he realized the power of storytelling.
All in all, the stories are powerful and Browde and Nossel deliver an energetic and uplifting performance. I left satisfied and entertained after listening to two guys who have grabbed life's issues and figured out how to embrace friendship, face illness, include family, select professions that satisfy, and live life to the fullest. On stage, they look like they feel pretty good about what they've discovered. They are two men talking and telling their stories.