Christine Howey. Photo by Steve Wagner.

Christine Howey. Photo by Steve Wagner.

By Stanford Friedman

In the unpredictable universe that is the New York International Fringe Festival, choosing which of the 185 shows to see is not an exercise for the faint of heart nor the intolerant of heat. One can risk it all with tickets to a large cast musical that is just getting on its feet, or hope that a new comedy is as hilarious as its advertising boasts. Or, one can place a safe bet  ideally a one-person show, with minimal tech requirements and a pre-existing production history. Christine Howey’s Exact Change seemed to meet those criteria. It has had four different stagings in the past year, and no special effects beyond a slide presentation. Calling it a one-person show, though, turns out to be much too simple a declaration.

After a prolonged opening-night wait in a sweltering lobby due to a malfunctioning projector (yes, even minimal tech can ruin a stage manager’s day), Christine took the stage to tell us the story of her life. Or, more accurately, her lives. You see, some 25 years before Caitlyn Jenner landed on the cover of Vanity Fair, Christine Howey was Richard “Dick” Howey, an actor and unhappy husband in suburban Cleveland, who underwent sex reassignment surgery to become the woman she is today.

Her tale, told in a series of brief vignettes, by turn poetic, comical, sad, testosterone-driven, and estrogen-driven, covers her path from a three-week old infant who senses something amiss with his body, to the post-surgical success that Christine enjoys now as an unspectacular member of society and renowned critic within the Cleveland theater community. I lost count of just how many vignettes were presented in this 80 minute production; maybe two dozen, accompanied by various family photos. And that was about 18 too many. Because each segment was so brief, many of them failed to build a proper emotional arc. The result, as directed with a full head of steam by Scott Plate, was a series of fleeting moments that, too often, could have been so much more engaging and cathartic if only they were fewer in number and more fully explored. Her story of buying a girly potholder while in a man’s body was of roughly the same length and emotional intensity as her retelling of the first trip to the bathroom in a Brussels hospital after her surgery. On one hand, we feel cheated not hearing more about her time in Brussels, though on the other hand, that potholder takes on an impressively symbolic weight. A quick encounter with the Tri-Ess Society felt like it could have been an entire play unto itself, while more contrived moments, like exploring his “1957 puberty” as if it were a ’57 Corvette, benefitted from peeling out as soon as it got started.

Christine assumes multiple roles, including those of her parents, as well as two reoccurring characters who represent the devil and angel on her shoulders. There was The Enforcer, the manifestation of Dick’s dark side, offering suicide as the way out. And there was Dolly, a wise and witty transvestite leading Christine through the rough times and toward salvation. While these two larger-than-life personas showcased the breadth of Howey’s acting ability, the more engrossing juxtaposition came toward the play’s end as we saw an old photo of a clearly miserable Richard projected onto a screen, upstaged by the here-and-now, jubilant Christine, commanding the moment. That was a picture worth a thousand vignettes.

Exact Change Written and performed by Christine Howey; Directed by Scott Plate.

Scenic design by Jeff Hermann; Sound & Video design by James Kosmatka; Lighting Design by Natalie Robin; Kryssa Bowman, stage manager. At The New York International Fringe Festival, The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, Remaining Performances – Wed. 8/19 at 9:15 PM, Fri. 8/21 at 8:45 PM, Sun. 8/23 at 9:30 PM, Thu. 8/27 at 2:30 PM. Running Time: 80 minutes.