Even the most casual practitioner in any of the three fields knows writing for film, television and the theater requires different skill sets. So the blunt disappointment of Alan Ball’s first new play in more than a decade should come as no great shock. In “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under,” Ball’s writing fused psychological drama with dark comedy, incisive characterizations and spiky confrontations, probing the personal fears, frustrations and lack of communication that rupture the surface of everyday lives. But in “All That I Will Ever Be,” the acerbic becomes glib, unpredictability becomes shallow provocation, and the characters’ search for belonging is utterly phony.
“When was the last time you knew somebody who wasn’t ridiculously self-aware and dryly referential?” asks Dwight (Austin Lysy), one of two central figures struggling with self-acceptance as they chafe against their outsider status in an America too blind to look beyond cultural stereotypes. Certainly, that somebody remains elusive in this play.
The other key character is Omar (Peter Macdissi), a professional hustler who habitually lies about his ethnic and family background. Playing off the fear and dangerous attraction his Middle Eastern looks can inspire, he exploits the market for exotic thrills by advertising his services as “Farouk, the Arabian Stallion.” Other times, he’s “Demetrius, Greek God” or even “Carlito, Puerto Rican Stud.”
Omar’s journey represents a contrived reversal of standard cultural imperialism. Via losing himself in love and identity issues, he gains empowering self-knowledge, becoming an emotional terrorist in an intensely ludicrous final scene that ends with him cradling his blubbering mess of a client (Patch Darragh) in a studied pieta pose.
In his upcoming untitled first feature as director, based on Alicia Erian’s novel “Towelhead,” Ball has been investigating issues of Arab-American identity and the collision of love and bigotry. Some overlap with that work is apparent here.
Given the ethnic parallels with his character, it also appears the Omar role may have been written for Macdissi (“Six Feet Under’s” arrogant bisexual art teacher Olivier), who hails from Beirut, with Lebanese and Armenian heritage. But while the writing is problematic, Macdissi’s hopelessly inadequate performance is the inescapable failing of Jo Bonney’s production for New York Theater Workshop.
Ball too often stuffs overworked speeches into his characters’ mouths in place of real dialogue. But Macdissi’s flat delivery and lack of emotional depth keep Omar at a numbing distance in a play in which the difficulties of intimacy are a central issue.
The otherness of appearing Middle Eastern in a society on high terror alert is twinned with the otherness of being gay. This theme is explored in part through Dwight, a highly medicated Angeleno stoner still traumatized by his mother’s suicide years earlier. His relationship with Omar starts as a transaction and spirals into something deeper.
Lysy’s nuanced, natural work makes a character cloaked in irritating self-pity into a complex human figure, allowing a greater degree of sympathy than we feel for Omar, who seems to be faking even when he’s hurting.
Likewise, in his single scene, Victor Slezak as Dwight’s father goes beyond the writing to bring a conflicted mix of guilt, concern and impatience toward his troubled son. And while the scene is overdetermined in its function as part of Omar’s emotional learning curve, David Margulies strikes some quiet but resonant chords as one of the hustler’s johns, an older widowed man with a straight-up sense of himself and the world in which he exists.
But Ball’s navigation of the material from smart-assy satire to drama is less than smooth, and the play is shaky structurally. In terms of laying thematic groundwork, the opening scene in particular, in which Omar is an electronics store clerk selling cell phones, is poorly executed. It exists merely to throw in trite, snide observations about a culture based on flashy, usually false appearances and rampant acquisitiveness and, secondarily, to introduce Cynthia (Kandiss Edmundson), an abrasive caricature of a driven career woman (“I want to be the first black woman in history to run a movie studio”).
The humor is dulled by the familiarity of many of the writer’s digs at the absurdity and imbalance of contemporary culture, variations on which were heard recently in “The Scene” and “The Little Dog Laughed.”
Bonney’s coolly efficient staging and Neil Patel’s sleek modular design of sliding panels to create a series of chic, soulless spaces also have a tired, seen-it-before feel, notably from the director’s recent productions of Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” and “Some Girl(s).” Those plays all had their flaws, but Ball’s windily titled work makes them seem almost profound in retrospect.