The tagline for Wink, Neil Koenigsberg’s perplexing and deeply problematic play now running at Theater for a New City in a production directed by Ron Beverly, is “Hollywood. Homeless. Heartfelt.” Location. One of the protagonists boiled down to a single word. What the play wants to be. What the play fails to be.
We meet Dario Villanova (Joe Maruzzo), an Oscar-winning actor whose light has quickly faded from supernova to dead star. He’s a horny old drunk and he’s flirting with his publicist, Valerie (Nikole Williams). He convinces her to go for a little dip in the pool, but Valerie screams because, we learn from a one-sided phone call, there’s a dead body in Dario’s pool. A month later, Dario is still shaken up as he meets with his insufferable agent, Peter King (an extremely easy-to-hate Joe Isenberg), a homophobic, sexist, and racist pig. He’s a pig and a character who will immediately put a bad taste in your mouth. He offers Dario big money – specifically, one million bucks – to star in a sure-to-be-shitty slasher flick called “Slaughter: The Romanian Senior Citizen Murder Project.” Dario doesn’t want to do it, but takes the script and goes to the park to read it. On a break from reading the script, he pulls out a beat-up letter that has to do with the drowning, telegraphed by projected light that resembles the refracted sun hitting the bottom of a pool.
Then he meets Wink, the homeless “gender-questioning” teen around whom this play focuses. Wink rejects gender pronouns. Wink talks like they’re straight out of Paris is Burning but has an iPhone and also loves doo-wop music. Dario offers Wink half of a sandwich and they connect when Dario recognizes Wink from the LGBTQ+ Center where Dario volunteers. Dario decides to take the role in the film with the stipulation that his fee be donated to the Center. The fading actor decides to pull back the spotlight’s aim onto himself via a press conference where he and Wink announce the donation.
I wanted to enjoy this play so much. So much. Unfortunately, the play’s insipid and exhibition-heavy dialogue, which creates scenes that build to anti-climax after anti-climax, proved incredibly distracting. Four of the five performances are hidden behind constant gestures and each seems to be acting in a play that is entirely different from the others. The play and its supporting performances are swallowed by the cavernous mainstage at Theater for a New City, where playwright Koenigsberg is a donor cited in the program.
Mechanically, what causes the play to fundamentally fail is Dario’s agent’s unhealthy obsession with what’s between Wink’s legs. This fixation, coupled with the agent’s rampant sexism and homophobia, is maladroit and ultimately tasteless. Yes, we are supposed to hate Peter. But the playwright relentlessly pushes his bigotry so far over the line that I began to shut down, and others around me repeatedly exclaimed vocal disdain when Peter violently confronts Wink about their gender and their sex.
Where the play fails thematically aligns itself with its two main characters: like them, Wink is lost and doesn’t know what to do with itself. Infatuated with teaching its liberal New York audience a thing or two about dismantling the gender and sexuality binary, it bops back and forth between telling a story about two lost souls who find each other when they need each other most and a story that struggles to clearly satirize the Hollywood machine.
Fortunately, there is one saving grace: Joshua De Jesus as Wink. De Jesus is fascinating to watch, even if his dialogue is of a completely different era than the one in which he resides and thrives. De Jesus’s youthful honesty injects the play with the heartfelt truth the play desperately wants to project. This kid is someone to keep an eye on, someone who could become the star Wink wants to be.