So the phrase “True Tales of a Reluctant Player” makes a whiplash-inducing subtitle for Don Reed’s catatonia-inducing one-man show, East 14th, which just opened at New World Stages. Just try to avoid shaking your head at it before the show even starts - and just try to avoid shaking your head at the end, after improbability and cheek-slapping tidiness have reared their well-coiffed heads one too many times.
Reed, who also directed, claims that his time spent growing up in 1970s Oakland, California, was divided between two dueling dens of iniquity: with his mother and her new Jehovah’s Witness husband; and with his father, who was a pimp living the high life on East 14th Street. He spent his free time knocking on doors one week and knocking other things the next, until he finally got convinced in his senior year of high school that he was better than either of these options and could at last find himself.
For some reason, though, Reed doesn’t evince much disgust or regret over his wilted-salad days, and every aspect of their dressing and undressing. Ostensibly, he wants us to find his actions appalling, the behavior of a boy too morally at sea to be in control of his own social and sexual destinies. But he takes such all-consuming pleasure in every conquest and every on-the-edge adventure that summoning sympathy for his put-upon adolescent self is all but impossible.
Even if he’s accurately portraying his oh-so-tortuous upbringing and the crowning emotional catharsis he experienced as a result (and that’s a California-sized assumption), he so exaggerates the other people in his saga that what little of what remains of his credibility is crunched under an avalanche of funk. His ultra-suave father is Don Cheadle on speed. His gay brother Tony is one of the mincingest stage creations New York has seen in years. Every woman he conquers is voluptuous, “chocolate-caramel,” and moves with stiletto-heeled, front-loaded bumps and grinds rather than steps. And his arson-prone step-brother is a less-restrained version of Jaleel White’s, ahem, classic TV creation, Steve Urkel.
Despite the breadth of these characterizations, you seldom get a glimpse of the man those personalities supposedly formed. Reed’s outsized impressions, his bravura knack for self-created audio effects (beatboxing, birds, and beyond), and his tendency to break into dance at the drop of a fedora are the province of disconnected stand-up. But here those devices mask the inner sensitivity that might make his saga a more universal one.
The comedians who get this right don’t shy away from revealing their souls while assaulting you with jokes - Dave Chappelle, for example, is all attitude and outlandishness, but wields a nervous, angry urgency that catapults his comedy from two dimensions to three. Reed, though, only covers his sex-axis - there’s no hint of the why.
Worse, his attempts to inject heart into the show tend to take the form of hushed intonations that sound good but say nothing: “They say it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes a ghetto to raise a man,” as one typical example. Unfortunately, Reed never proves what any of those in his own personal village contributed to his upbringing, besides easy access to sex, drugs, and stylish hats on the mean streets of Oakland.
Without such details, the play he’s written feels about as meaningless as losing your virginity to a hooker at your father’s behest - something, of course, Reed also endured. (Don’t worry - he thought it would have been better had he been in love.) As related here, that reminiscence - like so many others - pales compared to the real-world experiences related in My First Time, which shares the theater with East 14th. It only goes to show that being a reluctant player might be easy, but being an intentional playwright is hard.