Don Reed's new solo show, Can You Dig It? The 60s — Back Down East 14th Street, doesn't often feel like theater. But neither do many shows at the Marsh. The theater, established in 1989, specializes in solo performances, with performers serving as comedians and storytellers as much as actors. They don't just break down the fourth wall; they often behave as if they've slipped into your living room, so informal are they with their audiences.
Reed, who also works as a comedian, is similarly casual, but in telling stories from his Oakland childhood, he's also infectiously hyperactive. As skilled in mimicry as he is — impersonating the jumpers, spitters, and twitchers from his former neighborhood (they were a quirky bunch), he seems to reshape his very bone structure — he hasn't lost his childhood joy in performing. Unable, most of the time, to resist the urge to erupt into song and dance, he is in part still a hammy kid who craves an audience, part an adult who never learned to tune into everyone else's frequency. He cannot turn off his inner grooves and rhythms; he is doomed, or blessed, to forever boogie where others would merely trudge.
Yet as a piece of theater, his Can You Dig It? fails. The chief problem is that Reed has trod this ground twice before, first with East 14th, which covered Reed's teenage years, when he learned his father was a pimp, and then with The Kipling Hotel, which chronicled his time working in a retirement home during college. Can You Dig It? is supposed to be about Reed's earliest years, but it has so much overlap with the other, already covered time periods that it amounts to little more than the miscellaneous scraps that didn't make it into either of the previous shows. A few individual moments are quite funny, as when a young Reed and his brother are subject to the sorry routine of a pudgy, leering stripper when they're being babysat, but Reed doesn't shape his sundry anecdotes into anything more than a vague coming-of-age narrative. At the end of the show, he attempts to stir pathos with the tale of a relative's death — one he'd mentioned only in passing earlier in the show.
Age of Beauty, a No Nude Men production at the Exit, also operates outside of typical theater constraints, but in a different way. Writer and director Stuart Bousel compares his show to My Dinner with Andre, and there are some major similarities between his play and the 1981 film. Bousel's play is just a conversation — well, four conversations, with a few monologues thrown in, all by characters who grew up together in Tucson but have since drifted apart. Drama is supposed to be created in the revelation of character through dialogue and shifts in power status rather than through something "happening." Also like the film, the play is directed in long takes, with characters not stirring from their seats for the entire time they're on stage, the better to focus on the telling ways they choose to express themselves.
Not every conversation is equally revelatory, though. The first scene, with Susan (Emma Rose Shelton), an actress, and Regina (Sylvia Hathaway), a former artist who's since opted for a more conventional life path, shifts the foci of tension and connection at whiplash-inducing speed as characters rehash exes and wedding exclusions with desperate confessions and prickly ripostes. This central conflict between characters' lifestyles — an iteration of decades-old culture wars — doesn't feel especially fresh, but Shelton and Hathaway imbue their characters with an over-confidence that's too easily crumbled, so that how their characters will define themselves at the end of a scene becomes a suspenseful plot in its own right.
But this conflict between free-spiritedness and grounded pragmatism gets hashed out again and again in successive scenes, with little additional light shed. Characters, too, all speak with the same snarkiness that's partly affectionate, partly intended to wound. The constant referencing of ex-boyfriends starts to grate before long, as does the slew of voiceover-ready, navel-gazing life lessons: "This is why grown-ups can't make friends!"
By the time Lisa (Allison Page) and Deva (Megan Briggs) take the stage as passengers on a cross-country train ride that hasn't been the bonding experience Lisa wanted it to be, it's hard to care if they become friends, despite the warm and open performance of both actors; by this point in the play, friendship has become something to be talked about and infinitely dissected rather than lived.