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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 19, 2017

Joe Maruzzo and Joshua De Jesus
Photo by Rick Stockwell

It is difficult to know whether Wink, Neil Koenigsberg's play about a surprising friendship between a homeless teen and a middle-aged former Oscar winning movie star, is intended to be a heartfelt rumination on love and redemption, or a satirical jab at the mean-spirited, money-and-power-grubbing image of Hollywood. That it flips back and forth between these two themes makes for a decidedly confusing theatrical experience, mitigated somewhat by touching performances by the actors in the two central roles.

The play, on view at the Theater for the New City, starts out on a noirish note at the Beverly Hills home of Dario Villanova (Joe Maruzzo), an actor on the downhill path to has-been status. He and his publicist, Valerie (Nicole Williams), are engaged in some lightweight sexual banter, when they decide to take a dip in the offstage swimming pool. Suddenly we hear a scream, followed by an urgent phone call: "Send an ambulance. There's a dead body floating in my pool."

The significance of the incident will reveal itself in due course, but meanwhile we move to the office of Dario's agent Peter (Joe Isenberg). A month has gone by, and Peter is urging his client to accept an offer to star in a slasher film, titled "Slaughter: the Romanian Senior Citizen Murder Project." Dario is not very interested, but Peter assures him it will pay him well and reboot his career: "Think Bette Davis in ‘Baby Jane.'"

Another shift. Dario is sitting on a park bench, eating a sandwich and leafing through the script. He then pulls out a well-worn letter, which pertains to the drowning and that visibly upsets him as he reads it. But as he is falling into a funk over it, he is joined on a neighboring bench by Wink (Joshua De Jesus), a teenager Dario knows vaguely from the volunteer work he has been doing at a local LGBTQ center. They start to chat, share Dario's lunch, and quickly bond over a mutual love of doo-wop music.

In their scenes together, played out over a few days, Maruzzo and De Jesus manage to breathe some life into their characters, transcending a story line that could easily fall into the realm of a mawkish TV movie. Whenever the focus is on the pair, Wink shows some real promise as a tribute to the ability of the human heart to give and accept affection. Never mind the Hollywood angle; it is the gently-growing connection between these two, both lost in their own way, which is the play's greatest strength.

Wink doesn't shy away from looking with some suspicion at the relationship; is there a sexual motive lurking somewhere in the background? But it handles this question rather clumsily by focusing on the agent, Peter, portraying him as an over-the-top homophobic and sexist bully. Peter is fixated on Wink's identifying as "gender fluid," neither male or female, even though this is pretty much irrelevant to the growing bond between Dario and Wink. Instead, it becomes Peter's obsession, especially when Dario agrees to accept the movie role on condition that his million-dollar salary be donated to the LGBTQ center. As they prepare for a press conference, in which Dario, Wink, and the director of the center (Jose Joaquin Perez) will announce the planned donation together, Peter's behavior keeps getting creepier and uglier. He is melodramatically abusive not only to Wink, but also to the center's gay director and to Valerie, the publicist, who has been trying to fashion an appropriate press release for the occasion.

Ultimately, a confrontational scene followed by an old-style upbeat Hollywood ending manage to tie things together. But the audience is left to ponder what it is that the playwright and director Ron Beverly had in mind with this effort to mix a sincere and heartfelt story of an unconventional relationship with over-the-top, darkly cartoonish satire. It is, perhaps, the kind of thing Douglas Carter Bean (The Little Dog Laughed; The Nance) might have been able to pull off, but here it is merely a head-scratcher.

Through May 7
Theater for the New City - Johnson Theater, 155 First Avenue at East 10th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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