Deny We Were, a provocative new work by playwright/screenwriter/promoter/horror movie expert Joe Moe, is making its World Premiere at New York City’s 2022 Fresh Fruit Festival as part of the Festival’s “Return to Live Theatre”. The drama in Deny We Were is set in motion with the arrival of Jonah (JJ Bozeman), a 17-year old new high school grad who has come to live with his well-muscled, openly gay “uncle” Dean (Robert Maisonett) in sunny California before heading off to college. The ambitious albeit musky teenager is a competitive swimmer and aspiring social media influencer, bemoaning the fact that he only has 20,000 followers (“Hashtag ‘First World Problems’!”, as his snappy uncle would say…). The audience learns early on that “Papa Dean” helped raise Jonah since babyhood, and that he was best friends with Jonah’s father Jimmy, an ex-model and chronically posturing entrepreneur. Jonah and Papa Dean enjoy a close relationship, cracking an endless supply of jokes and often acting more as friends than as relatives: Jonah teases his “guncle” with lines like, “I have my whole life to talk about me. Who knows how long you have?!”… with Papa Dean, always quick with a comeback, retorting, “You’re taking advantage of my natural coolness!” The good-natured teasing soon morphs into something different when Jonah pesters his uncle by asking some VERY personal questions… specifically, if Dean and Jimmy were/are more than just “best friends”. To put it mildly, Jonah doesn’t give up easily. At one point, the relationship between the 17-year old and his guardian comes dangerously close to crossing a certain line, which leads the audience to believe that Deny We Were may take a very outré direction. Regardless of whether or not “it” happens, one thing is clear: In the spirit of any well-crafted drama, it’s established that there’s clearly SOMETHING going on underneath the surface.
While the First Act focuses on Jonah and Dean, in the Second Act we meet the other two players in this bona fide family drama: Jonah’s mother and father (who, incidentally, never married). It seems that in addition to his clothes and malodorant sneakers, Jonah has brought some baggage of a different kind to L.A. with him: The teen has been harboring more than just a little ill will for his vain dad that go beyond the usual generation gap. We meet Jonah’s workaholic mother Carrie (played perfectly with unpretentious grace by Kristi Donna Ng). Via shadows and flashback-style pieces of old conversations, we also get to “meet” Jimmy, the character with a mysterious hold on all the others. In Act 3, the audience finally gets to see ALL of Jimmy, and he’s pretty much true to the other characters’ descriptions. Indeed, thanks to Garrett Taylor’s portrayal, we also see, painstaking as it is, just why two of the characters in the play have been lured into such self-sacrifice to have him in their lives. The Third Act is also when the last of the play’s remaining revelations come to life, largely thanks to alcohol. We start to see just how complex the dynamics between Jonah, Dean, Carrie, and Jimmy really are.
Despite the heavy subject matters, Deny We Were is lightened up by its moments of humor between the drama, with most of that humor coming from the interplay between Robert Maisonett as the quick-witted Dean and JJ Bozeman as the junior Machiavellian Jonah. Being almost continuously on stage for the play’s entire 90-minute running time, Maisonett and Bozeman also deserve a particular shoutout: It is indeed an artistic challenge for an adult actor to convincingly play an angsty teenager; likewise for any actor to portray a character with a seemingly bulletproof moral compass. By the conclusion of Deny We Were, the play honors its promise of payback to the audience for our emotional investment, thanks to Joe Moe’s script and the hard-working performances of the four actors. It’s not a tidy ending by any means: The theme of
unrequited never-quite-completely-requited love– which sometimes lasts a lifetime– emerges as an important them. Indeed, so many people in the LGBTQ community will be able to relate.
Joe Moe’s Deny We Were continues Friday 5/13 at 8:00PM and Saturday 5/14 at 5:00PM at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, NYC. The cast includes Robert Maisonett, JJ Bozeman, Kristi Donna Ng, and Garrett Taylor. The play was Directed by Marcus Galbuerto with Sara Minisquero as Assistant Director/Stage Manager. For further information, visit www.freshfruitfestival.com