Chris Harcum preparing for his one man play "Two Lovely Black Eyes"

Chris Harcum preparing for his one man play “Two Lovely Black Eyes”

The FRIGID festival is on this week, and your intrepid reporter saw two plays Friday night that showcase the diversity and character of Off-Off Broadway theater this season.

On paper, VGL 5’4’’ TOP and Two Lovely Black Eyes are very similar plays. Both are one act, one man shows. Both are broadly about the experience of living in New York City and the lessons we learn from it. Both are (relatively) technically simple, without fancy sets or pyrotechnics. But the difference in their execution is a study of theater craft that belongs in a textbook.

The Urban Dictionary defines VGL as “very good looking[,] used almost exclusively by people who are generally not particularly so.” Lucas Brooks is not an unattractive man. His eyes are big and blue. His skin is unblemished. His body fat ratio is acceptable. But as the name of his one man show implies, Mr. Brooks appreciates the irony of being a relatively short, relatively young homosexual man with better-than-average looks who does not play the passive role in bed. This fact leads Mr. Brooks to meditate on the discrepancy between the gay community’s ideals and the unfun reality that gay men are just as prejudiced, intolerant, vain, insincere and shallow as the rest of humanity.

Lucas Brooks, VGL 5' 4'' TOP

Lucas Brooks, VGL 5′ 4” TOP

The template of the show you have seen worked and reworked (and overworked) in a thousand different iterations. The performer asks Who am I? Who are we? Why can’t we (gays, Asians, African-Americans, women) overcome our internal squabbles to fight the common foe of intolerance? Part of the convention is a baring of the performer’s humanity — usually ten minutes before the final curtain — when she realizes that her struggles with conceptual labels have obscured the irreducible complexity of being human. We are simultaneously the paragon of animals and a quintessence of dust, angels of mercy and sadistic devils, creatures of delicate sensibility and dull as over ripe melons.

Unfortunately for Mr. Brooks, the woman running the technical side of his show was not reading from the same page, or maybe even the same script. The light and sound cues appeared to have a mind of their own. On several occasions Mr. Brooks had to improvise when the sound cue didn’t go off, and on one occasion he had to ask the person in the booth to play his cue. The lights waxed and waned, and spots came up where Mr. Brooks wasn’t. Under conditions like these it’s not a surprise that periodically he had to take stock to remember his next line, but that had the unfortunate effect of slowing down the play, sapping its momentum and energy. It also clearly unnerved him, so that the lightness and fluidity you hope to see from a solo performer framed in the middle of a large, empty stage, captivating an audience, was missing.

Technical glitches aside, VGL 5’4’’ TOP commits the cardinal sin of trying too hard. If you’re a generous friend of the artist, you might argue that’s the whole point of the show. Mr. Brooks wants to convey the pathos of trying to convince the world that you are what you say you are and not what you look like, despite the impossibility of the task. But even the most artless seeming art is well wrought, and VGL 5’4’’ TOP suffers from a critical lack of sprezzatura. Two Lovely Black Eyes, on the other hand, written by and starring Chris Harcum and directed by Aimee Todoroff, is steeped in sprezzatura; sprezzatura oozes from every pore and drips onto the stage in a puddle of tightly crafted theatre, created to look like a completely spontaneous phenomenon.

Mr. Harcum begins the show by telling us that he didn’t write a script for Two Lovely Black Eyes. He works like James Brown to give you (meaning me) the impression that this piece is going to be seventy-five percent stand up comedy, twenty percent storytelling and five percent “Theatre.” To that end, he front loads a couple of bits with the woman running tech in the booth about the fact that she has nothing to do but play gratuitous, canned rimshots at inappropriate moments and read a magazine. He also argues with a critic (that is, a blogger comme moi) in the audience, provoking the critic to complain that the formlessness of the show won’t give him anything to talk about.  Two Lovely Black Eyes is exactly the inverse of VGL 5′ 4” TOP: where the latter suffers from unintended mistakes, the former creates mistakes — planned, thoroughly rehearsed, flawless mistakes — to underline the unique spontaneity of theatrical performance.

At least half of what Mr. Harcum has to say isn’t said to you, the random theater lover, whose curiosity was piqued upon seeing people on an East Village sidewalk queue up by a set of basement stairs that lead to unknown, off-the-grid, literally underground dramatic pleasures. His message is to me specifically, the writer who is going to take his performance out of the theater and publicize it all over the World Wide Web. He says at the beginning of the show that one of its themes is trust, and that message reappears in the press materials. The other putative topic of the show is gun violence, but at the end of the show when he bares his humanity, he tells me specifically (and the five other theater bloggers in the audience) not to write about the true story that is the centerpiece (the keystone, the lynchpin) of the evening’s catharsis. He tells us the people involved are still living and intimates that if we reveal his secret, lives will be ruined.

I have to say, this theatrical device was new to me, and frankly, dear reader, I enjoyed it. I like my art artistic. I’m all for experimental theater, but I personally believe in my old, crotchety, curmudgeonly heart that theater requires the performer to take charge. Theatre is not a democratic social experiment where audiences “collaborate” in any way with the performance. Rather, theater is the work of consummate con artists who make you think you’re the one in charge while they lead you by the nose through a set of emotions they have drawn up for you, like a great chef who makes you enjoy eating things that would otherwise make you retch. Every moment of Mr. Harcum’s show is utterly contrived: the outspoken blogger is a plant, as is the witty patter with the woman running tech. When Mr. Harcum invites the audience up to the stage on two occasions to act in skits, or when he gives us all a master class in empathy disguised as a lesson in acting, he is the director, paradoxically in full control of our perceived spontaneity. By telling me not to write about the most important part of the play, he cleverly takes total control over the performance, locking down any loose or misleading interpretations by appearing to be completely loose and spontaneous.

Whether we, the critics, like it or not, Mr. Harcum asks for our agreement in not breaking trust with his artistic vision, that is, to listen without prejudice. I feel compelled to agree, and I hope you will trust me when I tell you the show is worth seeing without telling you what it’s ostensibly about.