Gill’s comedy takes place in Chicago’s Boystown, not the Spencer Tracey/Mickey Rooney Boystown where a whiff of homosexuality would have caused serious conniption fits, but Chicago’s equivalent of Chelsea where all things gay can exist in relative peace.
Michael Katz (Paul Pakler), a boyishly handsome thirty-something, left New York City so that he could flourish on his own away from his family, particularly his mother. He has gathered his own family of friends around him—his village—which includes Adelle Strobe (delightfully rendered by Marie Eléna O’Brien) and gender bender Kevin Broccoli aka Ella Vader (a sassy, incredibly tall Jacob Lovendahl) who calls himself a “gender illusionist.”
At a party Adelle comes upon impeccably dressed, slightly nerdy Russell Dunhill (Andrew Glaszek, properly awkward) literally hiding out in a closet screening TV on his computer. This leads to the first of the two funniest scenes in Katz. As Russell goes off to get Adelle a drink, all the while singing a Broadway ditty—off-key—Ella intrudes her/himself on the scene betting Adelle that Russell is gay and that she stands no chance. Adelle finally has to pay Ella when Russell describes in sensuous detail the body of a famous movie star. Adelle, ever the survivor, finds love elsewhere.
At that same party Russell and Michael meet cute and wind up fooling around in that same closet, pulling Russell into Michael’s circle of friends.
Michael’s little world is invaded by his mother Kitty Katz (!) who explodes on the scene with homophobic rants so absurd that they are funny, particularly as spouted by this Jewish mother. Anne Newhall takes Kitty to absurd comic heights, making her likeable for all her blustering.
Kitty meets Adelle at Michael’s apartment. She vouches for Michael’s artistic abilities which Kitty brushes aside, deeming art a poor way to make a living. Nothing Michael does meets Kitty’s approval.
In the second funniest scene in Katz, Kitty tries to find a young lady to straighten out her son. At the local laundromat Kitty meets Ella not knowing Ella is really Kevin! They chat, get along well and Kitty invites Ella home to meet Michael. Complicating the situation even more is that Kevin and Michael have already had a romantic history!
Gill expertly writes each character as three dimensional, giving each complex backgrounds, making it clear that each benefits from knowing the others. A mundane Scrabble game is as revealing as Truth or Dare. Phone calls uncover the wonderful interdependencies of this group.
The biggest delight of this comedy is watching Kitty change, not only accepting what she found abnormal, but finding methods to enjoy herself in new ways with new people.
All the actors are fine, with Pakler’s Michael, neurotic, yet warm-hearted, the leader of his pack of friends.
John Robert Tillotson directs with a subtle sense of timing, never letting the more colorful characters overwhelm the others. He knows when the lines should be quiet and when they should be shouted.
Matthew S. Crane’s set cleverly transforms the all-white Theaterlab space with barebones indications of the different rooms and party spaces, helped by Heather M. Crocker’s lights and projections that anchor the play to a real city. Janet Bentley’s sound design also enhances the ambiance.
Experimenting with Katz (through October 14, 2018)
Theaterlab, 357 West 36th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.theaterlabnyc.com/events/experimenting-with-katz/
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission