nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 2, 2008
A gay man heads into an alley that's known as a sexual meeting place. A young man, also in the alley, calls him "faggot" and becomes abusive. The gay man fights back...fights back so hard that he actually kills the other man. The gay man runs away; the only witness (for reasons of his own) lies to the police about what he saw; and the young dead man—a boy, actually, in his late teens—is assumed, because of where he was found, to have been the victim of a gay-bashing.
This is the complicated scenario that fuels Victor Bumbalo's excellent new play, Questa. This is a very wise, thoughtful, and emotionally compelling work that deserves as wide and broad an audience as possible—not just because it's affecting and provocative drama, but because it reminds us of something fundamental that's all too often overlooked in these postmodern times of ours. The essence of Questa is that every human life is of immense value, and not to be squandered or taken for granted or ignored. The rich humanity that Bumbalo brings to all of the characters in Questa is genuinely awe-inspiring.
The young man who inadvertently and inexplicably kills his attacker before the play even begins, for example, is presented—warts and all—as a broken but reparable soul. Paul has recently lost his long-term lover to AIDS, and so maybe his unresolved grief somehow fueled the rage that poured out on the night he turned into a murderer. But his journey in Questa is one toward forgiveness of himself and of the hatred that he felt himself the brunt of when he was attacked in the alley.
To this end, Paul becomes obsessed with Lori, the mother of the boy he killed. Their ultimate meeting—one of the many scenes in this drama that plays out counter to what you probably expect—forms the climax of the story. Lori is searching for something too; she is suffering all kinds of guilt while she processes the (reasonable) conclusion that her son must have been gay (else why would he have been in the alley, and the victim of a gay bashing?). She had engaged frequently in the supposedly harmless homophobic joking/bantering that still characterizes lots of seemingly innocent discourse in the USA in 2008. Now she wonders how much she was unwittingly alienating or marginalizing her son.
There's a third point to the triangle, though, and he is some ways the most compelling of all. Daniel is the only witness to Paul's crime. He's a black man who lives on the streets—a sometime hustler and pill addict who, as he informs us up front, is almost always invisible to those around him. (Think about how passersby process the presence of dark-skinned homeless people they pass on Manhattan streets and you'll know what he's talking about.) Daniel decided, long before the murder, that he is in love with Paul, and so he chooses to protect him; and then to follow him around, trying to get his attention, hoping that somehow he will finally meet the object of his obsession face-to-face. This happens in yet another of Questa's remarkable confrontations.
Bumbalo explores all three of these unhappy people's quests with honesty and compassion but without sentiment or false optimism. This is finally a play about moving forward, but not at the expense of forgetting our history or, more importantly, our responsibility to others. Will, the teenager who called Paul a faggot and then lost his life, is never elevated to heroism here—how could he be? But the sanctity and innate value of his life is of foremost importance.
Wings Theatre Company puts its best foot forward in giving Questa the thoughtful, intelligent production it deserves. (Kudos to them for bringing it to New York; at the same time it's sort of astonishing that one of the bigger nonprofits like Playwrights Horizons or The Public missed out on this particular NYC debut.) Director Jeffery Corrick uses the wide stage of his theatre to generally strong advantage, laying out the various locales in Elisha Schaefer's unit set to minimize transition time between scenes and keep the piece taut and riveting. Unfortunately in a few places the lack of proximity between some of the characters is a bit problematic. Costumes by L.J. Kleeman and lighting by Anthony Galeska are fine. The performances of the seven-member cast are somewhat uneven, with the strongest work coming from G. Alverez Reid as Daniel, Dana Benningfield as Lori, and Jason Alan Griffin in a small but important role, as Richard, Lori's boss, owner of a Greenwich Village salon.
Any production weaknesses notwithstanding, this is powerful, important theatre that demands to be seen. I'd go so far as to call this one of the major new plays of the season. In its insistence that every one among us is to be treasured, it resonates with respect and appreciation of humanity that sometimes feels all too rare.