A funny look at growing up with too many options
NEW YORK—Growing up in the best of circumstances can be difficult. Growing up with parents on opposite ends of the spectrum—several in fact—can be painful, confusing, and at times downright interesting (at least in hindsight), as actor Don Reed explains in his autobiographical one-man show East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player.
More than a coming–of-age story, the play touches on themes of conformity and individuality, as Reed recalls his childhood in 1970s Oakland, California, where he was a boy trying to fit into two completely different worlds. His parents divorced when he was about 11, his conservative mother later remarrying a man who was very religious: "The kind of religion where you knock on doors at 7 o'clock in the morning”—something Reed did for several years.
Eventually rebelling against this type of life and the fact that his family no longer celebrated any holidays, at 15 he moved in with his biological father who lived on the other end of East 14th in an area of town a world away. It was a world of bright lights and infinite choices. Since his dad also happened to be a pimp, Reed often got to meet the colorful characters who inhabited his father's sphere of influence.
Where his mom was all about rules and order, his dad was quite the opposite, telling him that he could do whatever he wanted as long as he would always be himself. Unlike his two older brothers, both of whom were major players in the fields of romance and sex, Reed was still struggling to find his way, soon realizing that too much freedom contains just as many pitfalls as too little.
The story is quite interesting, with Reed painting his younger self as a somewhat naive kid, looking for guidance in people all too wrapped up in their own personal worlds. As a result, what may be good for them never really works for him, as his various anecdotes hilariously and quite believably demonstrate.
One can taste the humiliation he felt when forced by his stepfather to knock on the door of a girl he knew and had a secret crush on lived, so he could preach the word—the incident played here for laughs. Another highlight was when he was going out to meet his brother and pick up some girls. Lacking any hair care products, Reed put butter in his hair to make it shiny and smooth—throw in a very hot day and a ride in an air conditioned bus and the results weren't pretty.
Reed nicely portrays the dozen or so characters in the story; and if all are not nearly as fleshed out as they could be, many have moments that make them instantly recognizable in the eyes of the audience.
However, while he has a firm grasp of the story he's telling, the way he relates it is at times uneven. Many of the instances discussed can either be comic or tragic, and sometimes Reed seems unsure which way to go. Furthermore, certain pivotal moments, such as a heart-to-heart talk with his father or one with a drug dealer who tells him to stay out of that kind of life, aren't emphasized as they could be.
Reed also directed the piece and nicely brings forth his ideas of how the characters should be portrayed—not always as flesh and blood, but how they're remembered by a teenage boy as he tries to figure out just what sort of life he wants to lead. The set (unaccredited in the program) is very nice, though it doesn't really depict the era portrayed.
All in all, this is a show with a lot of heart, quite funny and, with a little more work, could be something really special.
Note: This play is for mature audiences only.
East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Running Time: Approximately 90 Minutes
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.