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Teenage Dick

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 20, 2018

Gregg Mozgala, Shannon DeVido, and Sasha Diamond
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Is it better to be loved or feared? This question posed by an in-over-her-head high school English teacher (Marinda Anderson) is intended to engage her class with Machiavelli's 16th century political treatise "The Prince." But only one of her students, a quirky but bright young man named Richard (Gregg Mozgala), shows any real interest. Indeed, parsing that particular problem becomes the driving force in Richard's life during the course of Mike Lew's comic-tragic pretzel twist of a play, Teenage Dick, which is being given a first-rate production at the Public's Shiva Theatre under the masterful direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel.

Let's face it. Unless you are able to find your niche among your peers, the adolescent years can be pretty rough. Teenage Dick is hardly the first play to explore that notion (for recent examples, see Mean Girls and Dear Evan Hansen). But Richard's awkward inability to fit in is exacerbated by the fact that he has cerebral palsy (as does the actor who plays him). This affects his balance and his gait and, unfortunately, opens him up to some cruel abuse by the likes of popular football hero, junior class president, and all-around schmuck Eddie (Alex Breaux).

But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or at least determined to take down your enemies, step over their bodies, and rise to the top. And Richard is nothing if not determined. Not only does he turn to Machiavelli for life advice, he also models himself on his namesake, Shakespeare's favorite disabled and inordinately wily villain Richard III, whom he frequently kinda sorta quotes. (His opening words are, "Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling").

While there is no kingdom to be gained here, there is the upcoming election for senior class presidency to be wrested from Eddie, who would seem to be a shoo-in. The only other competition is the religion-spouting Clarissa (Sasha Diamond), whom Richard plans to eliminate by enlisting the aid of his friend Buck (a wryly funny Shannon DeVido). She has access to the all-important database wherein lies manipulatable student grades, most helpful when candidates must retain at least a B average. Both the character and the actress rely on a powered wheelchair to zip around the stage, and zip she does, so adroitly that the wheelchair almost takes on a personality of its own.

This being a teenage saga, there are more hormones at play than the "fight-or-flight" adrenaline coursing through Richard's body. Like Richard III, his attention is drawn to someone named Anne (Tiffany Villarin), who is Eddie's ex-girlfriend and now, since their breakup, is the ex-most popular girl in the school. Another trophy to go after, or is there the possibility of amorous redemption for our hero? Which will drive Richard's actions, love or fear?

Richard's scenes with Anne are often quite touching, and despite the dark hue of the humor, Teenage Dick is often quite funny. Overall, the play takes us on a wild roller coaster ride with a mix of well-earned laughs and jolting surprises. That two of the cast members have disabilities is not coincidental. The work was commissioned by a theater company known as The Apothetae, which is dedicated to illuminating the "disabled experience." It is headed up by play's lead actor, Gregg Mozgala, who blithely refers to himself on his website as a "triple threat: actor, writer, cripple." So take a cue from his unruffled attitude, buckle up, and put your trust in the uniformly splendid cast members and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who understands well the funny-scary world of troubled teens, having helmed the highly touted Hand to God a couple of years back.

Teenage Dick
Through July 29
Shiva Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
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