nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
November 11, 2005
The best way I can describe Cheeks is that it is a coming-of-age story that has questions to ask about the nature of mental health. But Guillermo Gentile’s play, which in its slower moments seems mildly disorganized and in its faster moments seems utterly chaotic, does not easily lend itself to characterization. That the playwright has elected to direct this production himself does not, I fear, clarify his intentions, but makes them even more obscure. What kept me involved was the magnetic central performance of Jesse Soursourian.
Soursourian plays John, a young man who has been told by his father (who calls him “Baby”) that he is retarded—the question becomes whether his retardation is mental or merely social. The archetypal outsider whose arrival calls this into question is Martin, a man whom we first encounter cowering like a fugitive just inside the front door of John’s home. John has decided that this surprise visitor is his friend; John’s father said he would never have friends because he is retarded; ergo, John deduces, he must not be retarded.
When Daddy returns home, he is at once overly hospitable and deeply suspicious of his houseguest, but lets him stay to make Baby happy. Over the next indeterminate amount of time, Martin gives John an education both literary (by way of a number of erudite books Martin has for some reason brought with him) and sexual (by way of a prostitute, Polonaise, who is for some reason named after the Polish dance), and ultimately Martin decides John is simply poorly socialized. Daddy maintains that his Baby is unable to function in society. The irony is that of these two arbiters of mental health, Martin is an escaped mental patient, and Daddy—who leaves for his night job dressed up like a call-girl—is… well, he has his own psychological problems above and beyond your run-of-the-mill transvestitism.
The style of the play is said to be Magical (or Fantastical) Realism, but magic must have the power to enthrall and Cheeks has not quite gotten the spell right. Some of this is the result of Gentile’s uneven direction. There are a few occasions in which farcical violence erupts, but the blocking is imprecise and I could not tell if any harm was done and to what extent. There are several interludes involving surreal infomercials on a large screen television, but though occasionally humorous, they sap whatever energy has been built up in the previous scene. As for the performances, Michael Camacho and Louis Vuolo, who play Martin and Daddy, are operating at an unpleasant, sometimes grating, intensity—would that they could find a more appealing way of conveying their respective insanities.
Soursourian, who could fall victim to the same fate, instead gives a performance that is calm, easy, and often adorable. He does not belabor John’s supposed (or actual) retardation, but uses it as an opportunity for playful spontaneity, capturing the spirit in which this entire production might be more successfully directed. In fact, his simple, grounded manner gives some indication of how the play might be more successfully written, if the playwright has an eye toward revisions. As it stands (or runs, as Cheeks, does at CSV throughout the next month), it needs a little more sense before the nonsense (which we are asked to examine) becomes compelling.