Tuesdays at Tesco’s – Simon Callow; Photo by Carol Rosegg

I am a long-time admirer of Simon Callow. For his stage and screen work as well as his writing. So I was taken aback by the hodgepodge that is Tuesday at Tesco’s now in residence at 59E59 Theatres. I was so surprised that I turned to the script to see if I could understand what had happened.

The script, originally written in French by Emmanuel Darley and translated into English by Sarah Vermande and Matthew Hurt, is a masterful piece of work. It is spare and poetic. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. I know the script is masterful because by the time I finished reading it my gut was clenched to beat the band. The script goes to the heart of what it means to be ignored and belittled.

Tuesday at Tesco’s is the narrative of a transgender person who used to be Paul and has now had the necessary procedures to be Pauline. The exact details of the physical change are not defined, but referred to using simple, elegant prose poetry. As a little girl…I was already myself me inside…even if a little boy. At some point the external changed to match the internal spirit. She presented herself to her parents. The mother sat stunned. The father flew out the door.

Since her mother’s recent death Pauline has taken Tuesdays to visit her father and care for him. Not that he couldn’t care for himself. He is perfectly capable. But he would rather sit in the cesspool that is his personal internal landscape and let his daughter do everything that needs to be done, short of wiping his little bottom. She sacrifices. He seethes. A perfect couple.

Tuesdays are excruciating for Pauline. When she walks down the street she can feel the people, the walls, the bricks giving her the once over. Trying to fit the pieces together. Who was she? What IS she now? That’s a public torture. The one that cuts her like a small knife stippling her entire body is her father’s.  He looks her with disbelief – up and down – every time. For pity’s sake he mutters more than once.

When they walk to Tesco’s (the local grocery store) to buy the weekly supplies her father keeps his distance, either walking ahead or hanging behind like a petulant child. When he looks at her he has the power to rob her of who she is. All he sees is his son. And when she insists on being called Pauline, he takes this as a personal betrayal.

This is the story of everyone who was ever slighted or demeaned buy a parent, or anyone really. This is the story of everyone who ever felt invisible in the hierarchy of their family. This is the story of everyone who strayed from the family path and created their own way.

This is the story of everyone.

All the more pity then that this production is so woefully off kilter. To begin with, Mr. Callow’s attempt at portraying Pauline falls short of the mark. In my limited experience with people who have changed from one sex to another, I have always noticed that the voice is a major focal point. Great care is given to sound, to timbre, to speech pattern. Mr. Callow’s bass voice is on full display here and this severely undermines Pauline’s believability. (He does, however, a masterful job at interpreting both Pauline’s father as well as the few townsfolk who they encounter.)

Callow’s costume and wig do nothing to emphasize Pauline’s femininity. The wig is soggy and the outfit ill proportioned. Combined with the turquoise pumps the overall effect is jarring. The addition of Conor Mitchell on piano (this man gets an award for being onstage and appearing interested in his score while waiting to play his few musical comments) is positively baffling as is Callow’s choreography during these unnecessary musical moments.

As Pauline closes with the real reason she is saying all of this, there is the tiniest moment of Ahah that ripples through the audience. But by this time the production elements have been stacked so high against the tale that the revelation is like a whisper coming from underneath a collapsed building.

This is a script that needed nothing more than the miracle of an actor doing what good actors do – turning words into magic. One chair, one light, one actor, one character telling a story.

In Tuesday at Tesco’s, instead of character, we got caricature.

Tuesdays at Tesco’s – By Emmanuel Darley; adapted from Mr. Darley’s play “Le Mardi à Monoprix” and translated by Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande; directed by Simon Stokes

WITH: Simon Callow (Pauline) and Conor Mitchell (Musician).

Sets and costumes by Robin Don; lighting by Chahine Yavroyan; movement director, Quinny Sacks; wardrobe, Tara Llewellyn; stage managers, Grace Wessels (Britain) and Jessica Johnston (United States); executive producer, Richard Darbourne; producer/general manager, Dudley Hinton; associate producer, Assembly and Riverside Studios. Presented as part of Brits Off Broadway by Richard Darbourne Ltd in association with Assembly and Riverside Studios. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Through June 7. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.