George Morfogen's Uncle Bob is a truly miserable character. And for the one hour of stage time that he remains miserable, Bob is truly a joy to behold in Austin Pendleton's play. Unfortunately, genuine misanthropes like Bob have a way of curdling into cuddliness in the theater. Blame it on a playwright's need to come up with a second act.

George Morfogen’s Uncle Bob is a truly miserable character. And for the one hour of stage time that he remains miserable, Bob is truly a joy to behold in Austin Pendleton’s play. Unfortunately, genuine misanthropes like Bob have a way of curdling into cuddliness in the theater. Blame it on a playwright’s need to come up with a second act.

When we meet the septuagenarian Bob, he sits alone in his West Village apartment, preparing caustic statements for his impending and much-anticipated memorial service. The front door opens, but Bob does not let his estranged wife, Sally, enter the apartment. Bob’s verbal abuse is as poisonous as it is funny, and while we laugh at his put-downs, we may also thank God for not being on the receiving end. Bob will not accept anyone’s comfort or love, and resists attempts to give his life the slightest bit of meaning now that he’s dying of AIDS.

Eventually, Bob’s young, indolent nephew Josh (Gale Harold) makes his way through the front door, and “Uncle Bob” immediately enters the dangerous territory of the play’s oil-and-water phase. “Each minute you’re here makes me happier that I’m dying,” Bob tells Josh. Josh keeps up his end of the argument by calling Bob “a faggot” who is dying because “you took it up the ass” — not once but several times. Their relationship doesn’t begin to make sense.

Director Courtney Moorehead wins one and loses one with her two actors. As Bob, Morfogen displays a great stone slab of a face that could demolish tall buildings, much less fragile egos. Add to that a voice with all the sound and fury of a Mac truck.

Harold (of “Queer as Folk”) offers up a dead-on parody of a 1950s Method actor. Squinting into the lights as he indulges in interminable dramatic pauses, Harold has real trouble either remembering his lines or conjuring up the appropriate emotions. Granted, the role is downright incomprehensible, as Josh goes from breaking dishes and beating up on poor Bob one moment to cooking dinner and getting his groceries the next.

The bizarre second act centers on Josh’s accusation that Bob is sexually attracted to him. Josh taunts Bob; Bob admits his incestuous attraction; Josh offers himself to Bob, who rejects the HIV-negative Josh. Josh immediately has sex with an HIV-positive homeless person in order that Bob won’t have to worry about contaminating the now-infected Josh.

Bob’s response: “This is sick” and “I don’t believe this!”

Precisely.

Uncle Bob

SoHo Playhouse, New York; 199 seats; $45

Production

A Rebellion Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Austin Pendleton. Directed by Courtney Moorehead.

Creative

Set, Matt Corsover and Andrew Sendor; costumes, Pamela Snider; lighting, Jason A. Cina; fight choreography, Lee Willet; production stage manager, Jason Sutton. Opened April 23, 2001. Reviewed April 17. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Bob - George Morfogen Josh - Gale Harold

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