Steven Hauck and Mario Golden. | JONATHAN SLAFF
Deceit,” a complex, joyless drama about a man cheating on his wife by having “safe, discreet play” with guys he meets online, is not simply content to consider the warped psychology behind creating a second life. It’s also about the inexplicable, self-destructive impulse to get caught.
Playwright Richard Ploetz, inspired by a Katie Couric exposé on Internet dating, explores this rich territory — along with our fear of intimacy and capacity for both honesty and guile — with a clear-eyed intensity.
Given that straight-identifying married guys craving guys is a huge phenomenon (check out Craigslist if you have any doubts), it’s refreshing to see this subject tackled unflinchingly onstage.
Frank — whose online alias is Bob — is a master of duplicity. The 48-year old philanderer has been lying to his family and to himself for decades. At his investment firm, he gets a thrill pretending to be making shrewd deals when he’s really chatting online with guys, jacking off at his the desk.
“I don’t consider myself gay. I hate the term,” he asserts. “I’m everything… ordinary as dirt.”
Trapped souls try on new personas in hopes of grabbing happiness
Frank is not the only fraudulent character. His wife, Helen (played with flair by Glory Gallo), an editor of a trendy New York lifestyle magazine, has deceived herself into believing her marriage is solid. Ken (Joshua Zirger) is a shady journo not completely upfront about his motives for doing an investigative story on “Bob.”
When Bob meets Jeffrey (Mario Golden) for a date set up online, it appears both men created fake personas. After seeing each other for three months, Jeffrey falls in love, tricking himself into thinking Bob will allow himself an honest gay relationship.
Even Frank and Helen’s eight-year old son Tommy has secrets, some of which reveal themselves in nightmares.
You could say that Frank actually juggles three lives — the straight life, the gay life, and the examined life. His multiple meetings with Ken are more like confessions than interviews for a feature article. Inevitably, though, the walls between his fastidiously built compartments come crashing down.
Under the direction of Andreas Robertz, “Deceit” is at its best when focusing on Frank’s struggle to maintain his multiple personalities. As the schizo Frank, Steven Hauck, who registers as equal parts NBC News anchor Brian Williams and Bryan Cranston’s meth maker on “Breaking Bad,” delivers a fierce, chilling performance. When Frank’s worlds begin to collide, his breakdown, in slow motion, is devastating.
A scene where Frank is on the phone at home, arranging a sex date on the Frying Pan (a seedy, dilapidated lightship docked at a Chelsea pier that many New York men may or may not admit to visiting) and descends into dirty talk, is at once disturbing and scintillating.
Despite potent subject matter and performances, the low-budget “Deceit” is exceedingly rough around the edges and may be too dense for its own good. Many scenes with Tommy are awkward. Much is made of Bob’s palindrome name but the significance is lost on me. The recurring image of Tommy crafting a ball using his father’s used dental floss is annoyingly cryptic.
Plus, in a contemporary play about the wonders of hooking up with dudes via technology, they might have mentioned apps like Grindr or Scruff to keep it fresh.
Ultimately, the takeaway is not how conflicted and monstrous Frank is, but how we are all compelled to manage multiple personas — online, at home, at the office, and on a date. It’s an essential part of being human. Is he really so different from the rest of us?
The script, which could use some judicious cutting, offers some sharp, evocative passages. Attempting to rationalize his behavior, Frank says, “It’s so easy to flirt online — no risk — flurries of words — like snowflakes — they melt — who gets hurt?”
As anyone can guess just minutes into this engaging if uneven work, pretty much everybody.
Ana Graham and Antonio Vega | CAROL ROSEGG
In the oddly intriguing, high-concept “Working On a Special Day,” Ana Graham and Antonio Vega work very hard with very little to create a most unusual, bittersweet tale about finding unlikely human connection.
Not only do both actors serve as co-directors and co-translators (the piece is based on an Italian adaptation of the 1977 Oscar-nominated “Una Giornata Particolare” starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren) playing all the roles, but they are required to literally create set pieces with chalk on the expansive walls. They even provide sound effects (ringing phone, door buzzer, squawking parrot) and point a remote at a laptop to activate recordings of a raucous parade outside their apartments.
At the start of the play, the actors proceed to strip off their street clothes and slowly pull on their circa 1938 costumes, in full view of the audience. Not an easy task, fumbling with suspenders, vests, girdles, stockings, and aprons.
The wisp of a plot centers on Antonietta (Graham), mother of six, who stays home to do the chores while her family is away enjoying the parade celebrating Hitler’s visit to Rome. It’s the height of fascism, when Mussolini has brainwashed and shackled Italy’s citizens. When her pet parrot escapes its cage and flies out the window, she follows it across the way to her neighbor, Gabriel (Vega), a confirmed bachelor suffering from severe depression.
Over the course of the day, the two find uneasy solace in each other’s company. Gabriel reveals he is homosexual, perhaps doomed to persecution under Mussolini’s iron fist.
“At billiards in Plaza Tuscolo,” says a distraught Gabriel, “when they find one of us, they pull your pants down and jab a cue up your ass.”
Somewhat awkwardly, the pair breaks free from their oppressive, proscribed roles to find a scrap of joy. Like the pet parrot, they each are trapped in cages and manage to escape, albeit just for a brief interlude.
Both actors, who happen to be Mexican and not Italian, are adept at portraying the mismatched couple. While their spot-on depictions of Antonietta and Gabriel appear effortless, their secondary portrayals appear, well, labored.
To be sure, “Working on a Special Day,” at 90 minutes with no intermission, demands that the audience work hard as well. Some of the action and motivations are tough to figure out. It’s not completely clear how this dramatic conceit relates to the content, aside from offering jolts of novelty and comic relief. The tone — drawing goofy cartoons walls — seems bafflingly at odds with the harsh reality of their existence.
What’s more, the underlying message that homosexuality is a prison that needs to be escaped is painfully dated indeed.
DECEIT | Theater for the New City | 155 First Ave., btwn. Ninth & Tenths Sts. | Through Jan. 27 :Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $15 at SmartTix.com or 212-254-1109
WORKING ON A SPECIAL DAY | 59E59 Theaters | 59 E. 59th St. | Through Feb. 10 ; Tue.-Thu. at 7:15 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8:15 p.m.; Sat. at 2:15 p.m.; Sun. at 3:15 p.m. | $35 at 59E59.org or 212-279-4200