nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 9, 2007
How many authentic heroes can you meet on New York City's stages right now—I mean people who leave the world a little better than they found it? Well, there's Jean Valjean; and maybe Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray and Angel from Rent; have I missed anybody?
Well, meet Felony Mayhem, Auntie Mayhem to his adopted kids, the genuine article in the hero department as far as I'm concerned, and the kind of brave, loving, flawed character that we come across far too rarely in contemporary drama. He's the central figure of David Pumo's 2003 play Auntie Mayhem, a play that (to be clear right up front) I admired so much that I published it in NYTE's anthology Plays and Playwrights 2004. This warm, funny, very affecting comedy/drama is now back in NYC, at Wings Theatre. If you're looking for a little authentic inspiration—perhaps where you'd least expect it—this is the show you need to see right now.
Felony is a thirtysomething one-time drag queen, now living in a small apartment in downtown Manhattan with his partner Bobo (a refreshingly un-stereotyped, blue-collar gay man) and, most nights, his best friend Charlotte (né Charles), who is still a working drag performer. (Charlotte lives in the Bronx with his grandmother, but generally chooses not to make the long trek home after work.)
Into their lives comes Dennis, a teenager whom Felony encountered at a club late one night; when he comes to understand that Dennis has been kicked out of his fundamentalist Christian mother's home because he might "infect" his younger brothers and sisters with his homosexuality, and further that Dennis has suffered emotional and physical abuse in a stream of institutional homes since then and is now living on the streets, hustling to earn his keep...well, Felony can't help but actually do something about it. He invites Dennis to stay, and by Scene II, the young man has been adopted by Felony and Bobo, his photo hanging proudly next to their bed. Before the play is through, we will see Dennis turn his life around, working in an office and going to college. We'll also meet two other young men whom Felony takes in, substituting tough love and security for the abuse and damage they've been used to. One is Ivan, another gay teen who wants to become a dancer and becomes (sort of) protege to Charlotte. The other is Epiphany, a male-to-female transgender.
Felony's big heart fills the play with love, but the surface is almost sitcom-family-wholesome, albeit utterly turned on its head. Felony and Charlotte trade barbed quips exactly as their quasi-prototypes Auntie Mame and Vera Charles do; the kids, partly trying to figure out who they are and partly learning from their elders, engage in similar banter. In the middle of the show there are even two nifty musical numbers, one from Ivan (a rap about "Generation Q" that's loaded with wisdom and style), the other from Charlotte and Felony, recreating one of their drag numbers from long ago (in boas and high heels but otherwise in male attire; a rendition of Lisa Gold's "Big Girl Now" that is a bona fide show-stopper).
Pumo's writing is warm and witty and gentle, but the play's twin messages—first, that there's an invisible world of homeless/neglected LGBT youth struggling to survive on our city's streets; and second, that just a little bit of love and compassion are the first steps toward solving that problem—resonate clearly and cleanly throughout Auntie Mayhem. Director Donna Jean Fogel realizes the piece beautifully, on a homey, realistic bedroom set designed by Florencio Flores Palomo that defines the world of Felony, Bobo, and Charlotte perfectly.
The cast is lead by Moe Bertran in the title role; Bertran created the role of Auntie Mayhem in the original production and his work is, if anything, more assured than ever as he anchors the piece with a luminous, enlarging glow worthy of Auntie Mame herself. Ivan Davila is also back as Bobo, bringing a gentle strength and groundedness to the role. Bertran and Davila's chemistry is unshakable; they make as believably a loving couple as any I've seen on stage. Mark Finley plays Charlotte, and he brings grand shading to a character who could be played simply as a drag diva archetype; his scenes with Bertran and with Carl Ka-Ho Li, who plays Ivan, have a depth and reality that make Charlotte refreshingly human. (Finley is also a scream putting on and taking off his drag ensembles, as he is called upon to do frequently during the show.)
In addition to Li, the younger cast members include Jason Luna Flores as Dennis and Andre Darnell Myers as Epiphany; both do solid work, and I was particularly impressed with the dimensions Myers brings to his character, reminding us that, her finger-snapping attitude aside, she is mainly a confused, scared teenager.
Auntie Mayhem is as entertaining as it is enlightening, which is a rarity; I can't recommend this show more enthusiastically. I see it being turned into a film, a TV series, and a big Broadway musical. Let's hope it gets the long life it deserves.