(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on 4/17/17.)
Dario Villanova (Joe Maruzzo), the first character we meet in Neil Koenigsberg’s provocative new play Wink, is an Academy Award Winner. He won the title of “Best Supporting Actor” in an unspecified year, presumably sometime in the ‘80’s. As pop culture history has taught us, however, Hollywood can be cruel to its former icons. When his neophyte P.R. woman and part-time lover Valerie (Nikole Williams) responds to his autographed 8-by-10 with, “My mom— she’s your biggest fan. All the ladies at her senior home will go bananas!”, we feel the actor’s queasiness with her “compliment”. Now looking a bit weathered and describing himself as “Hollywood sober” (going to AA meetings but drinking on occasion), a real-life drama occurs for Dario when he finds a body floating in his swimming pool. It turns out to be his housekeeper’s 17-year old nephew Carlos, who has committed suicide. Later on, we learn that the former A-lister’s connection to the dead teen was far more personal. In addition to the pool tragedy, Dario’s career is drifting towards B-movie territory. He was recently offered the role of “Dr. Death” in a film called “Slaughter” (AKA: “The Romanian Senior Citizen Murder Project”). What kind of movie would this be? The actor, as well as the audience, already knows: A bad one. But for a salary of $800,000 and a chance to extend his career, the star realizes he may not have a choice. Welcome to Los Angeles— where image, wheeler-dealing, and a desire to stay “relevant” usually push aside genuine human bonding.
However, genuine human bonding does break through in Wink. While reading the script for “Slaughter” in a park, the grieving Dario meets the play’s magnetic title character, a non-gender identified teen-aged artist (Joshua De Jesus) who declares, “W.I.N.K. ‘Wink’! Just right cause it’s gender neutral and that’s the way it should be!” Wink is also homeless. Dario initiates conversation with the understandably cautious youngster. The two soon bond over doo-wop tunes from the ‘60’s: the timeless, high-spirited music that Dario grew up with and that Wink rediscovered thanks to the teen’s revered Aunt Clara. As it turns out, the pair are not total strangers. Wink is a client of Replenishment Hall, a resource for homeless LGBTQA youth (based on The Ali Forney Center in New York City). Dario is one of the center’s celebrity volunteers. Dario invites Wink over for dinner and to stay the night, with the only requirement being that the teen continues to make art.
Thanks to the acting talents of Maruzzo and De Jesus, and the organic direction by Ron Beverly, the audience never questions for a minute that we are witnessing a pair of truly lost souls that found each other. Nor do we question that Dario and Wink’s unorthodox relationship is based on anything other than mutual affinity. However, the characters around them can’t see that, and wonder just what is going on. One of those people is Dario’s agent Peter King (Joe Isenberg), an opportunist who’s irked by the pair’s friendship but soon decides to exploit their new relationship for publicity. Another is Wink’s well-meaning and possibly over-zealous case manager Manuel Ortiz (Jose Joaquin Perez), an openly gay social worker who also happened to be the object of Peter’s homophobic bullying when the two were in high school together. While living it up in Dario’s pseudo-mansion, Wink inadvertently becomes a pawn in a showbiz setting of image, greed, and gender politics. Worse, Peter the agent is no less than obsessed with whether Wink is a boy or a girl, with an entire subplot dedicated to the preoccupation of what pronoun to use for Wink in an upcoming press release. Peter’s prejudice and greed builds up to a climax that’s no less than painful to watch. Wink’s subsequent emotional turmoil, triggered by both present and past emotional traumas, culminates with a nail-biting scene which is even more challenging for the audience to sit through. Strong as Wink may be, we fear that the non-gender conforming youngster may fall prey to the same irreversible fate that many other LGBTQA kids have.
The entire cast of Wink is excellent. As the fiercely independent youth at the center of it all, Joshua De Jesus is a revelation. As Dario, Joe Maruzzo expertly portrays a difficult character— one who sweeps away the celebrity gold dust for a more meaningful calling. Until his character reveals more malevolent tendencies towards the end, Joe Isenberg’s Peter often drifts close to caricature (It’s hard but not impossible to believe that someone living in L.A. in 2017 could be so homophobic…)— and when he does, his character is often so over-the-top (although, admittedly, often very funny…) that it’s easy to hate his character but also easy to love Isenberg’s performance. (A wink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit at the end may hold a clue to the agent’s real motivations, which may not even come as a surprise to some astute audience members.) As Manuel, Jose Joaquin Perez is engaging as the sympathetic but no-nonsense social justice warrior fighting for “gender liberation”, such as in scenes when he’s teaching what the “Q” and “A” in “LGBTQA” stand for. Rounding out the cast is Nikole Williams, smartly playing a rising writer working for a synthetic environment which she sees right through.
Wink manages to be street-smart and earnest at the same time. With both eyes wide open, the play is unafraid to explore the hard reality of LGBTQA homeless youth— yet it succeeds in incorporating many life-affirming, lighthearted moments of hope and humor throughout. As mentioned before, Wink examines the ever-changing sensibility of gender fluidity, which can sometimes be challenging to understand even for the most progressive among us. That includes the issue of pronouns. Yet, it’s the humans behind those pronouns that really matter. In showing that human spirit, Wink succeeds with flying rainbow colors.
Wink continues at The Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., New York City, through Sunday, May 7. Visit http://www.TheaterForTheNewCity.net/Wink.html for more information.
(All photos by Rick Stockwell.)