By Patrick O’Brien
Midway through The Things I Could Never Tell Steven, PrideArts’s grand re-opening of their space on Broadway, one starts to feel something like the restlessness afflicting each of its four characters. All of them — Mother, Father, Wife, and Ex-Boyfriend With Benefits — keep trying to reach Steven, and all of them keep getting his voicemail. They clearly want Steven to let them in, and for him to share himself in return, and the piece, written by Aussie cabaret songwriter Jye Bryant, clearly very much wants to explore the hurt and havoc that Steven’s apparent emotional constipation causes.
One begins to think on the director’s note: “[To the characters,] Steven represents the perfect son, the suitable husband, and the quintessential lover…As I dug deeper...it made me think about hero worship: how one gets sucked into cults, conspiracy theories and religious fanatics. It made me think of people who would turn their backs on the truth just to protect their so-called beliefs. But what happens when the person you look up to turns out to be nothing like you imagined them to be? Do you continue to worship them and turn a blind eye? Do you confront them or do you walk away?” That’s some chiaroscuro phrasing for a piece that, up till now, has limited itself to pastels. Could we be rounding a bend soon? Could the elusive Steven prove to be this enthralling a human being? However, hope soon deflates, and restlessness gives way to listlessness. No, Steven’s just that emotionally constipated. What’s worse, he’s just a two-timing cad. Worse than that, he won’t even call back Mom and Dad.
The other characters don’t amply compensate for his blank space. When they lack proper names and the piece is set in “Anywhere, USA; the present,” there’s only so much color they can offer. And what color there is, is wan cliché. Mother sees red at the thought of her baby boy getting married, and that’s not just because she’s constantly clutching a glass of pinot. Father’s voicemails begin with “Could you call your mother?” Wife furrows her brow as Steven keeps getting “stuck at the office.” Ex is a laundry list of paraphilias. Some of Bryant’s song ideas are more amusing than others — Mother finds Steven’s hidden stash of gay sex paraphernalia and is either in denial or none the wiser — but, reflecting his cabaret bona fides, the songs as individual units don’t really build to anything greater so much as they riff on one idea for three minutes, rinse, and repeat. (The song mentioned above might also summarize why it’s not the wisest idea to key the action to “the present;” in a post-Internet world, even Grandma knows that a vibrator isn’t really a neck massager.)
At the very least, it’s appealing from a production standpoint: four characters more or less confined to their own spaces; it’s perfect for pandemic times. But, perhaps consequently, the songs are overwhelmingly solos, and the ensemble finale, “Steven Knows,” points up the choral sound that’s been missing and is so cathartic to hear. A good choral sound, too. It’s a solid cast they have.
Kyra Leigh is the obvious show-stealer, wringing out every drop of comedy as irrepressible Mom. Carl Herzog finds solid ground in his particularly treacly numbers about buried fatherly affection. Elissa Newcorn gets a cheer when she stops furrowing her brow, cracks open that bottle of white, and leaves Steven in the dust. Nate Hall gets a cheer when he packs up the whips and chains, puts on a button-down and khakis, and also leaves Steven in the dust.
So, “what happens when the person you look up to turns out to be nothing... Do you confront them or do you walk away?” In Steven’s case, it’s hardly worth asking. The Things I Could Never Tell Steven plays through September 19th at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets can be found here. Photos by Marisa KM.