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Fathers & Sons

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Edwin Matos, Jr., and Richard Hoehler.
Photo by Peter James Zielinski.

The biggest disservice Richard Hoehler has done his new play Fathers & Sons, which just opened at the Lion Theatre, is set most of it onstage. The consciously cluttered confines of Todd Edward Ivins's set house wall segments on wheels, racks of costumes, the obligatory curtains, and two actors (Hoehler and Edwin Matos, Jr.) playing actors playing a collection of men whose relationships the title doesn't always accurately describe. The trappings suggest a two-dimensionality and falseness that the rest of Hoehler's quietly affecting show doesn't benefit from. Observing from the wings, the greenroom, or even the rehearsal studio might make it seem more like the play, and the issues with masculinity it addresses, haven't already been frozen.

But Hoehler's chosen frame inspires him to embrace the obvious instead of deconstruct it. Hoehler plays a man named Richard, who's desperately trying to get his two-man show, Fathers & Sons, prepped for a backer's audition that will be attended by industry bigwigs. Matos is Edwin, a troubled young man who hasn't yet learned to commit to the craft of acting he claims to love. His tendencies to arrive at rehearsal late (sometimes hours late), to blow his lines, and to not trust his own feelings during his speeches rankle the business-minded Richard, who is positive that if he can't sell this play about the complex interplay of male identity in the modern world, his middling, past-the-midpoint career will be well and truly over.

So many of these details are at least superficially accurate - Richard even teaches a professional acting class for high-schoolers, just like Hoehler - that they threaten to become more involving than whether Richard or Edwin will ever connect. Had Hoehler, a noted Off-Broadway playwright-monologist, resisted the temptation to structure this play with the rigid adherence to or appearance of fact that characterizes his solo works, he might have established less emotional opposition to a topic that needs no help.

Hoehler even proves this with the snippets we see of Richard's play, which in their conception, writing, and acting display heartfelt commitment to exploring the title's conundrum. No, not every story is that of a literal son and father. But seeing how a stepson and stepfather relate, how a gay theatrical power-pusher exerts influence over his latest crush, and how an uncle becomes the closest thing to a paternal figure for his mentally challenged nephew tell you as much about the male dynamic as do the actual father-and-son stories about an illiterate immigrant father who embarrasses his college-bound son and an absent deadbeat who tries to make amends and a new bond with the now-grown son he's never known.

By design, each of these interludes also reflects back on how Richard and Edwin function, demonstrating how family unity (or the lack thereof) affects or infects one man's dealings with another outside his bloodline. It's not hard to predict that Richard and Edwin will eventually lapse into their characters when fighting their own pitched battle, but Hoehler and his director, Chris Dolman, so smartly set up and execute that climactic scene that it feels organic rather than clich├ęd. And the resolution that follows is genuinely moving, putting carefully considered dramatic closure on a subject that doesn't (and can't) often have it.

This is aided by the utter lack of chemistry between Hoehler and Matos, an atypical method of casting that here beautifully underscores the unresolvable friction coursing through each pair they play. Wading through a variety of accents, ages, and demeanors, Hoehler summons up a broadly colorful look at a half dozen contrasting visions of manhood, without ever apologizing for any of them. The only thing his characters have in common are the ironclad courage of their convictions, which gives the older side of the equation the rock-solid center it needs. Matos can't match Hoehler's chameleonic abilities, but does well in every son he plays by employing a harsh brashness that masks thoughts, aspirations, and anguishes that none of them is yet adequately equipped to express.

That choice even supports Hoehler's central contention that although all men are essentially different, all boys are basically the same. This makes for a strong foundation on which Hoehler can build his look at two boys of vastly different ages who've put off growing up for far too long, and watching that maturation process over the course of 90 minutes is ultimately a cathartic thrill. But it would be so even if Fathers & Sons took place somewhere other than a Theatre Row stage. The struggle between men to understand each other is an eternal, universal one that needn't (and probably shouldn't) be locked into one locale that has the capacity to make you forget how real all this is for the men who must live through it.

Fathers & Sons
Through October 4
Lion Theatre, Theatre Row Studios, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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