nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
July 16, 2011
The Author's Note in the program for Joshua R. Pangborn's new play Don Gio, premiering at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, remarks that he's at a loss for words when asked to describe what Don Gio is about. "I know what it is about—but I don't know how best to describe it. Don Gio is, I think, better experienced rather than explained." While Don Gio is definitely a ride with countless twists and turns, I find the same difficulty in describing it, because it doesn't seem clear that Pangborn knows exactly where he wants it to go.
Don Gio is a loose modern take on the story of the classic Don Giovanni (or Don Juan depending on which version you're referring to). In Pangborn's Don Gio, the title character is a fast-talking, rather portly man whom every female on the face of the earth inexplicably can't help falling into bed with. Despite the protests of his trusty, razor-witted British butler, Leopold, Don Gio's interests are piqued when his neighbor, Ana, seems to be the one person who is able to resist his charm (this is mostly because she's a lesbian). Thus Don Gio begins a quest to win her heart. From this point, however, the story holds loosely to this thread but shoots off into numerous unexpected directions.
Ana's mother, Perdy, has lost her grip on reality and talks to her dead son, Martirio, whose body she has stuffed and keeps in a closet, somehow unbeknownst to Ana, who lives with her. She crafts a master plan to unite Don Gio (who she thinks is her long-lost son) and Ana (despite her sexual preference), which leads to other bodies piling up along the way (who also re-animate as "zombies" in Perdy's mind). Perdy also is involved in some kind of witchcraft, which she uses to "re-animate" her victims. This culminates in a twisted comedy of errors, where Don Gio poses as a woman to try to win Ana's affection and later switches clothes with his butler to try to throw off the scent of the crazies surrounding them, hoping to kill, sleep with, or ritually sacrifice Don Gio.
There are so many plot devices obscuring the story we originally set out to follow that, by the end, you become unsure of what Don Gio was trying to do at all. And because the script loses its focus, it loses its internal logic along the way.
The central logical gap in the show is the main character himself. Don Gio is a big guy, he's no Adonis, and the character, as it's written, lacks even the charm to make his womanizing ways even slightly believable. The show seems to be hinging on the hope that there's humor in the fact that this chubby guy is the most unlikely Don Giovanni figure. This might work if almost every word out of his mouth wasn't blatant, crude sexual innuendo. This also weakens every female character in the show—except for Ana—because there's no visible reason why they should all be falling over each other for this louse. This makes the foundation of the plot (his quest for Ana) fall flat a bit, because you never really believe that this selfish, despicable guy could actually turn a lesbian straight—and you don't want him to because what would that say about sexual politics?
Developing out of this issue is a feeling that Pangborn only truly gives credit to the intelligence of Gio, Ana, and Leopold. Despite obviously not being a woman when Don Gio dresses up to try to fool Ana, it seems that only she is sharp enough to see through the guise. Every other character is somehow fooled. This continues later when Leopold and Don Gio switch places. Despite looking absolutely nothing alike, every character instantly buys that Leopold is, in fact, Don Gio, leaving the audience to wonder if these poor characters need eye exams.
Despite these issues, the cast is extremely committed and gives every moment their all. Christopher Morris and Drew Moerlein, as Don Gio and Leopold, respectively, have a great chemistry and rhythm with each other, constantly trading witticisms and barbs. It's difficult to sell sexual innuendo non-stop for 90 minutes, but Morris does an admirable job trying. Jennifer Kent has great stage presence, and does well layering acid wit over a core of sweetness and sadness (and you have to give her credit for overcoming the fact that her character only seems to be in scenes before or after taking a shower and gets stuck wearing a towel for half the show, even when complete strangers, or—more importantly—the lecherous Don Gio, are around).
Don Gio seems to start off wanting to be a modernized Don Giovanni, then offshoots into wanting to be everything. All of these ideas and plot points are actually very interesting independently, but when thrown together it muddles any semblance of unified focus; there are too many moving parts. There are flashes of great, snappy dialogue but it doesn't quite sustain throughout the show. Its fearless, hard-working cast is a credit to Don Gio but this doesn't quite keep a show that seems to want to be about everything glued together.