nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 2, 2011
Fabulous Darshan, Bob Stewart's wise, funny, and splendidly entertaining new play at WorkShop Theater Company, is indeed fabulous (in the colloquial sense of over-the-top wonderfulness as well as, per my dictionary, in the sense of being "amazingly good"). As for Darshan, well, let me let The Dictionary of Spiritual Terms explain:
In Hinduism darshan refers to the perception of the ultimate Truth perhaps through one’s own experience or perhaps through such secondary means as seeing (thus experiencing the spiritual essence of) a guru, a saint , a holy site, or a sacred effigy.
Stewart generalizes from this idea the ways that members of one generation pass on love, guidance, wisdom, and karma to the younger people they care for and mentor; this view of darshan is the key to this remarkable play, which is the story of one such mentor as well as a meditation on how this kind of relationship can become the most powerful one in some people's lives.
The two men at the center of Fabulous Darshan are Ken, an African American heavy-set gay man who has been appearing in the same role in an ultra-long-running Broadway musical for 15 years, and Stu, a 22-year-old trust fund kid/wannabe actor who has just arrived in New York City and has improbably befriended Ken. Stu thinks of Ken as a Broadway star, but treats him as an indulgent uncle—the only person, he says, who likes him despite all of his faults. (These include, in addition to the narcissism of youth, addiction to pills and a propensity for hooking up with guys for very wrong reasons.) Ken is probably in love with Stu on some level, but mostly is content to play the avuncular role, finding in this younger man an outlet for his ample but under-utilized ability and desire to love.
They make a delightful odd couple, especially as we watch them interact with each other (Ken coaches Stu on the history of camp by forcing him to watch Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, for example) and with a few of their outsized acquaintances and colleagues. We meet Stu's boyfriend JohnJohn, a "physical therapist" whom he met on Bigmuscle.com, and Ken's agent Moishe, who tells Ken that he's his favorite Harlem Renaissance-type client. And we meet Ken's friend, former lover, and one-time mentor Edmond, a flamboyant theatre director suffering from AIDS, and Edmond's current short-term fling, Dash, the son of a famous TV mogul who is terrified that his father might discover that he's gay.
And there is one more very important character, the Hindu god Ganesh, who guides Ken through his meditations and serves as a channel for his inner thoughts. Stewart does a magnificent job bridging the spiritual and actual worlds that Ken occupies in this play, and with director Susan Izatt relies upon the magical intimacy of theatre to drift in and out of Ken's head with perfect ease.
Fabulous Darshan tracks Ken and Stu's relationship, and uses it to reflect on the ways that older men (older gay men, perhaps, in particular) pass things on to their younger counterparts. Edmond reflects at one point that his generation were supposed to be the pioneers of liberated gay life, but instead too many of them were felled by AIDS. Ken, who came up (and out) after Stonewall, must carry the torch.
But although Fabulous Darshan is fabulous in every way (there are loads of dance breaks and endless references to Broadway musicals and camp cult films; Ken even does a brief impersonation of Ethel Waters in Member of the Wedding at one point), and although all of its characters are gay men, please do not ghettoize this as gay theatre. No, this is wondrously human theatre, trading in the universal struggles and truths that everyone deals with in their lives. Stewart and his collaborators explore the human condition with grace, intelligence, joy, and compassion.
Sofia Palacios Blanco has provided a spare, fluid set that serves as Ken's apartment and many other locations beyond without the need for set changes; it's dominated by a colorful altar to Ganesh that represents Ken's inner self beautifully. Diana Duecker's lighting and Quentin Chiappetta's sound complement this world, as do Chris Hlinka's appropriate, fun costumes.
The four-man company is superb. Tim Cain anchors the play as Ken in a tour de force performance that's just bursting with heart. As the god Ganesh as well as Moishe, Dash, and JohnJohn, Mike Smith Rivera gets to demonstrate his alarming versatility and talent. Spencer Scott Barros brings maturity, insight, and great empathy to the role of Edmond. And newcomer Evan Bernardin (who has just finished his sophomore year at Marymount Manhattan College) is excellent as Stu, his own young age belying the depth and complexity he's able to bring to this character.
Fabulous Darshan is a triumph for WorkShop, a long-running indie company whose raison d'etre is to develop new scripts like this one. It deserves a long, fabulous future.