By Stanford Friedman
There are three characters in Michael McKeever’s 2018 one-act, Mr. Parker, but it is an unseen and unforgotten fourth who drives the action in this absorbing and beautifully acted drama. Now having its off-Broadway premiere at Theatre Row, courtesy of Penguin Rep., the play deals with grief or, more precisely, that period of time when grief is beginning to lift and a person is inclined to make mistakes, or resist the urge of forward momentum, or both.
It has been seven months since Terry Parker (Derek Smith) lost Jeffrey, his husband, in a car crash; seven months of processing the guilt over his own participation in the accident and the weight of being the one to OK Jeffrey being taken off life support. Terry tends to tarry, letting his writing career languish, avoiding parties and spending more time than he should in what was once Jeffrey’s East Village art studio. That is where we find him as the play begins, only he is not alone. A drunken outing the night before has led to him hooking up with Justin (Davi Santos) a bartender/Uber driver/object of desire who is nearly half Terry’s age. A self-described “talking treadmill,” he may be just the thing to pull Terry out of his funk. Who better, after all, to help one move on than an Uber driver?
However, Jeffrey’s sister, Cassandra (Mia Matthews), sees things differently. Like the mythological Greek priestess of the same name, she is cursed to know the future but not be believed. “I know everything,” she tells Terry and indeed she foresees the romantic and financial troubles that lie ahead even as Terry doubts her perspective and dodges her voicemails. Time lurches forward, with the three of them each staking their claim to parts of Jeffrey’s past and Terry’s present.
In several ways, Mr. Parker, echoes McKeever’s 2015 work, Daniel’s Husband. Both involve gay marriage touched by tragedy, an interfering woman with good intentions, and a boy toy who turns out to have surprising depth. And both New York productions benefit from the sure-handed direction of Penguin Rep’s artistic director, Joe Brancato. But where Daniel’s Husband takes a sharp and ill-advised turn midway through, Mr. Parker makes a subtle and far more effective pivot, shifting the play’s focus from coping with loss to appreciating the future. Each character winds up with a decent chance of a worthwhile legacy.
The piece is also a love letter to Manhattan with plot points that call on the Whitney, the Ansonia and Blue Hill restaurant, among other famous locales. If there is a fault in this script, it is the use of lengthy asides that Terry delivers directly to the audience on several occasions. Under the right conditions, the approach can be stunning, but here it feels more like a shortcut, delivering exposition to move the story along while distancing us from the intimate connections the actors have skillfully sculpted. (There is also a brief bit of nudity which adds nothing to the production except the hassle of securing the theatergoers’ phones in locked pouches.). Smith gives a quietly powerful performance as Terry, never devolving into pity. Matthews finds a sympathetic edge in the hard-nosed Cassandra and Santos endows Justin with equal parts charm and obnoxiousness. The artistically cluttered and colorful studio apartment by scenic designer David Goldstein, meanwhile, gives form and substance to Jeffrey’s spiritual presence.
Mr. Parker – By Michael McKeever, directed by Joe Brancato.
WITH: Mia Matthews (Cassandra), Davi Santos (Justin), and Derek Smith (Terry Parker).
David Goldstein (set design), Myra Oney (costume design), Todd Wren (lighting design), and Max Silverman (original music & sound design). Penguin Rep Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., https://bfany.org/theatre-row/shows/mr-parker/. Through June 25. Running time: 90 minutes.