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Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!!

Joey Merlo’s campy collection of one-acts purports to be a trilogy of terror but only one of the three truly rises to the occasion of the true horror genre.

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Charlene Incarnate as Midnight Coleslaw and Armondo Houser as Boner in a scene from “Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!!” at The Tank (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Perhaps Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!!’s tagline “an evening of boner-chilling terror” was not meant to be a typo. The premise of an evening of one-act plays that explore queer culture and perspective through (low) comedy and the macabre could be entertaining, if only the end result had enough macabre to fill out the evening. One act gives a truly creepy story of a young couple falling for a chair that appears to be made of human skin with a gender all its own that pleases both members of the heterosexual couple. The second act finds a lesbian couple on the eve of one of them turning her mother over to an assisted living facility. She in turn is haunted by the ghost of her long deceased father as the couple ready the mother’s house for sale. The last act is for the most part a monologue of a gay man that may or may not be celebrating his last birthday on earth.

In playwright Joey Merlo’s answer to Rod Serling hosting The Twilight Zone, we are introduced to our host Midnight Coleslaw, a drag-vamp who is as foulmouthed as she is alluring and sexual, and Boner, her talking-skull sidekick. Midnight, OUT100’s 2019 Showgirl of the Year Charlene Incarnate, gives us a lip-synched faux Las Vegas revue number, Silent Circle’s “Danger Danger,” backed by two dancers, the Butch Goblins, in full leather and S&M pig masks. She is accompanied by the floating skull manipulated by the charming Amando Houser giving us a broad grin throughout to compensate for the skull’s own inability to ingratiate itself with the audience. The hardest worker on stage? That would be the portable wind machine in place to give Midnight that music video thumbprint of long flowing tresses in the wind.

Chair, the first of three acts, gives us Babe, in her early thirties, and Hun, her significant other also in his early thirties, and a chair, but not your garden variety chair. This one as described by our young, impassioned duo has “no real legs…more like – four – bumps” and “the arms were rounded” “and it was covered in skin” “but it wasn’t covered in skin” “with veins and freckles and scabs…folds and lines – bits of hair” “dry spots” “sometimes it would sweat.” Though Babe is at first more enamored with the chair, Hun eventually comes around and sings to it. Their relationship to the chair is overtly sexual.

Curtis Gillen and Rebecca Robertson in a scene from Joey Merlo’s “Chair,” part of “Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!!” at The Tank (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

As they gradually segue into becoming a throuple, Babe and Hun find themselves competing for time with the chair, and for the chair’s attention, both emotionally and sexually. Whereas the relationship that previously existed between Babe and Hun was lovey-dovey bordering on suffocating (a couple so much in love, it makes a person want to smack them), the need for the chair drives a wedge between them. They now question whether they really want to be married to each other, and the thought of bringing children into the world repulses them. Rebecca Robertson and Curtis Gillen are both effervescent in these roles. As there is so much humor in their performances, it is staggering to watch as they pivot when they are creeped out by the chair as it takes on human proportions.

Sadly, the one thing that doesn’t work well in this one-act is the physical appearance of the chair. The initial chair is wood and looks like a small chair but doesn’t bear the resemblance of anything with skin. The audience is expected to suspend all disbelief after the hideous description that Babe and Hun give us. Further when it takes on all human qualities, it is a page right out of The Mummy, the 1932 horror fantasy that starred Boris Karloff. Here, the actor playing the “chair” is covered from head to toe in bandages, but nothing that would instill terror in an audience.

With Midnight nowhere to be found, the Butch Goblins convince Boner to take center stage in, what else, Prince’s “Head,” a big production number complete with skeletal projections and black lighting. As Boner had expected, the petulant Midnight is not thrilled with him performing a solo in her absence. This is all mere filler while the stage is readied for the next one-act.

Daddy’s Girl, the second of three acts, finds Pat and Mel, a married lesbian couple in their 60s, in Pat’s childhood home on the eve of her mom being transferred to an assisted living care center. As Mom’s dementia worsened, including her claims to be having dinner with her (late) husband every night, Pat and Mel agree that Mom can no longer live on her own. On their first night in Mom’s house, guess who makes an appearance. Apparently, Mom was not as far off the deep end as they thought.

John William Watkins, Jan Leslie Harding and Pricilla Flores in a scene from Joey Merlo’s “Daddy’s Girl,” part of “Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!!” at The Tank (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Daddy shows up to what he expects to be his usual dinner date to find his daughter in the process of packing up the house to ready it for sale.  Daddy hasn’t aged since the portrait of him that has hung on the living room wall all these years. His dashing appearance is considerably younger than that of his daughter Pat. His paternal instincts have not diminished one bit, highlighted by his concern that now she has let herself go and probably is past childbearing years…she’ll never find a husband now. As it so happens, one of Pat’s regrets was that she never let Daddy know about her true self – she never came out to him. Mel goads her into doing so now, even though he is a ghost.

For Daddy, the rude awakening is that Pat has found someone to take care of her, in effect to replace him…that is Mel, her wife. Even the act of dressing up in her prom dress which she never got to wear years ago (prom was the day Daddy died) does not make Pat feel that she and her Daddy can continue this charade of picking up where they left off the day he died. It doesn’t matter that the living room is now filled with pink balloons. It doesn’t matter that the Carpenters’ “Close To You” is playing at full blast. If Pat doesn’t live her life true to herself now in her 60s, then when?

Jan Leslie Harding gives a touchingly nuanced performance as Pat. Her tears are for all the time that was lost and for all the sacrifices she willingly made for her mom. Priscilla Flores as Mel gives a relentless take-no-prisoners tack in her relationship with Pat. She is clearly the protector that Pat has needed. John William Watkins’ Daddy is thoughtful and kind and ultimately heartbroken. The love of his daughter hasn’t diminished in any way, but she is no longer his little girl.

There is no horror element that we can plainly see. Watkins’ personification of Daddy as a ghost is as harmless as Rex Harrison as the Captain in the 1947 classic The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The only thing that borders on creepy here is Mel’s incessant “There you go. Good girl. Good girl – that’s my good little girl.”

The interlude until the next scene is ready is Midnight, now down to pasties and a thong, thrashing away to Rick James’ “Super Freak.” This is her last opportunity to seduce us, her audience. Exiting with Boner, her parting words are “Let’s go find a library and some kids to read to.” Middle America, beware!

David Greenspan in a scene from Joey Merlo’s “Alone Again,” part of “Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!!” at The Tank (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

The third act, Alone Again, is a somber, bittersweet reflection on aging for gay men of a certain age. We find Dr. Humphrey Renfield, on the eve of his 69th birthday, sitting alone in his “crumbling, cockroach filled lower east side apartment,” dressed in a dapper celadon smoking jacket, holding court in a comfy armchair in his dimly lit apartment with only the ticking of various clocks as his soundtrack. A newly retired psycho-therapist, with the emphasis on the psycho, he reminisces about a time way back when his apartment was where the parties were: orgies of men dancing and having sex, partying as if their lives depended upon it. While he doesn’t name it, the AIDS epidemic decimated his collection of friends. Over the years that ensued he often found himself alone, reflecting on time and aloneness. “Time. Time. Time just…doesn’t seem…very real…anymore. Temporal disintegration. I need the clocks to keep me on track.”

He dreams, or rather envisions, parties vividly. He watches friends get together, pair up, and disappear…and he is the only one conscious of the abrupt vanishings. “It happens again and again and again…until. There’s no one left. No one left. But me.” Tired of being the only one left, he starts counting out pills on his table. How many will be enough? The taking of pills is interspersed with knocking at the door. It is the arrival of his friends – all of the actors we have seen in the other two plays enter to sing Happy Birthday. The playwright leaves this open-ended. Is this party his last and the arrivals are only in his imagination? Are they really here and they’ve interrupted a suicide attempt?

Over the years we have come to expect brilliance from David Greenspan and he doesn’t disappoint here. He imbues Renfield with just the right amount of pathos and dignity, with humor snuck in where you least expect it. “I’ve lost my train of thought. That’ll happen you know. As you get older. That and the semen. There’s much less semen. Nobody tells you that but – rest assured, my dears, it’s an altogether dismal amount. Little drops and driplets. The fountain of youth – dried up…Anyhoo.” The exquisite timing is all in the pause and the last word.

David Greenspan and Charlene Incarnate (center) and the cast of Joey Merlo’s “Alone Again,” part of “Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!!” at The Tank (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Director Nick Browne succeeds in creating three very different moods here…four when you count the intermezzos provided by Midnight Coleslaw. For her, he provides the wallop; there are no subtleties, nor should there be. Subtleties are left for the subtext throughout Chair, the character of Pat on the fence in Daddy’s Little Girl, and the effortless conversation in Alone Again. It is a sublime blend.

Browne and the playwright are supported in minimal scenic effects provided by Joyce Lai, Matthew Deinhart’s mood-sensitive lighting, Brittani Beresford’s whimsical costumes particularly for Midnight and her entourage, Euxuan Ong’s adroit projections and Michela Micalizio’s captivating yet sweet creation, Boner.

On the heels of the transfixing On Set with Theda Bara seen earlier this season at The Brick in its Transport Group/Lucille Lortel Theatre co-production, this disarming trio of one-acts at The Tank has us eagerly anticipating Merlo’s next efforts.

Midnight Coleslaw’s Tales from Beyond The Closet!!! (through June 23, 2024)

The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.thetanknyc.org

Running time: 85 minutes without intermission

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About Tony Marinelli (58 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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