Questa could be the story of Paul, a young gay man who finds it difficult to find intimacy after the death of his partner. It could also be the story Paul’s sister, whose constant attempts to protect her brother take a toll on her marriage. Or it could be the story of a crime - in a late night encounter in an alley Paul turns on a would-be gay-basher and murders the young man. Paul’s attempts to find peace after the killing would certainly be enough material to fill a two-and-half-hour play.
But Bumbalo still isn’t finished. The play also follows the dead boy’s mother, Lori, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her son, killed in an unsolved murder in an alley. The community believes the boy’s murder was a gay-bashing, so Lori tries to accept not only that her son is dead, but that he was gay and never told her. This interesting twist - in which, because of a misconception, Lori questions whether her entire relationship with her son was a lie - would also be enough, standing alone, to support a play.
There’s still more. In the middle of everything, Lori has been having an ongoing affair with a priest. (How refreshing to see a priest portrayed as having illicit sexual relations with a consenting adult for a change.) So Questa also focuses on Father James’s attempts to see himself as a man of God while still violating his vows.
And we’re still not at the good play yet. All of the above is largely dispensable. Bumbalo has his characters interact in implausible ways, compounding the plot complications and making any attempt at in-depth character study or dialogue impossible. By the time Paul, pretending to be a stranger to Lori, invites her to pray with him at Father James’ church, unbelievable plot twists have taken the place of what could have been a tension- or emotion-filled meeting. And the ultimate resolution of the Paul/Lori plot is similarly unsatisfying, in that another plot twist takes the place of the scene the play had seemingly been leading up to.
Nor is this aspect of the play aided by the dialogue itself, which has more than its fair share of clunkers. Would Lori ever really say to Father James, “D’you ever feel guilty about our fucking?” And Bumbalo has Paul’s sister tell him, of the murder, “We must never speak of this again,” as though they were momentarily in some English period piece rather than present-day New Jersey. Director Joe Cacaci doesn’t score many points either. The first act is comprised of many short scenes, each of which starts in the middle and runs a few minutes to an “important,” or “poignant” line at the end, which is then punctuated by some dramatic music and a blackout. Cacaci needs to pace the play better; some scenes (like an argument between Paul and his sister’s husband) need to catch fire immediately, but they are played so slowly, the vicious words have been given no emotional build-up.
The cast is mixed. Michael Hagerty stumbles and pauses his way through the role of Paul. At the beginning of the play, I very nearly thought the character was mentally delayed, but once Paul referenced Proust, I realized instead that he was approaching the role with a detached, distant style. This is much more successful in the second act, when we see Paul’s desperate attempts at achieving intimacy, as well as his reactions to Lori’s pain. Wendie Malick is excellent with Lori’s anger and confusion, lashing out at everyone and everything around her, trying to bury her grief in hurting others. However, by the second act, Lori is kinder and gentler, and Malick is never really given an opportunity to show us her transformation. Dan Lauria makes little impression as Father James; although the plot of the play makes him a man at a moral crossroads, the script merely pays his dilemma lip service, and he has little to actually do.
Interwoven with all of this is the good play - a series of monologues delivered by Dorian Harewood as Daniel, a homeless man who saw the killing and made a report to the police which protected Paul. Harewood enters the play effeminately holding a cigarette, walks around so we all get a good look at him, purses his lips and says, directly to the audience, “I’m the witness.” He then tells us, in the first person, exactly what he told the police and why he did so. Bumbalo’s writing for Daniel is solid, and Harewood’s delivery spot-on. “The cops were surprised I was so cooperative,” he says, adding pointedly, “I’m usually not.” Daniel is part narrator, part catalyst, part guardian angel, part philosopher and - and this is what really makes Daniel work - part borderline unstable homeless guy. Harewood usually has Daniel speak with an affected “street queen” sort of voice, but when he’s angry, he lowers into an intense, aggressive, streetwise voice, which reminds you to keep your distance.
Partway through the first act, I started wondering what Questa might be like if Bumbalo tossed the rest of the script and instead relayed the entire story of Paul and Lori through a series of monologues by Daniel. It might just be the searing, thought-provoking drama Bumbalo had hoped to write.
Questa. Written by Victor Bumbalo; Directed by Joe Cacaci; Executive Producer David Milch. Scenic Design Evan Bartoletti; Lighting Design Dan Weingarten; Costume Design Alex Jaeger; Sound Design/Original Music Steve Goodie; Casting Michael Donovan, CSA; PR/Marketing David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Stage Manager Crystal Jackson; Producers Joe Cacaci & Mireya Hepner.
Questa runs through May 15 at the Court Theatre in West Hollywood. For tickets, see www.tix.com.
Alternate Cast -- Performing Sunday Evenings:
Photo by Michael Lamont