Plays don’t work like TV shows or standup routines, so why didn’t Don Reed get some help? A standup comic and TV actor with no experience as a playwright or legit director, Reed is nevertheless the scribe, helmer and star of his autobiographical solo show “East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player.” Even Bob Ettinger and David Williams, who are listed in the play’s credits as “creative consultants” don’t have legit backgrounds, so it’s no surprise that some excellent material is squandered.
But despite its debilitated state, you can hear the potential in Reed’s life story. Growing up in 1970s Oakland, he left his mother’s house after she married an abusive Jehovah’s Witness and moved across town to live with his father, an honest-to-god pimp.
Despite his line of work, Reed’s father was loving and gentle. He not only encouraged Reed to live up to his academic potential, but also embraced another son’s homosexuality.
These people could ground a striking portrait of an unconventional family, but Reed muddies the details. He’ll say something happened when he was “16 or 17,” as though specificity doesn’t matter, or he’ll insist he “grew up in the ‘hood” only to mention his “middle-class high school” moments later. The sloppiness makes his world difficult to understand.
It’s also unclear why Reed is performing the play. Without a narrative focus, his stories are mere anecdotes, leaving challenging questions unanswered and deeper themes unexplored. Auds may wonder why Reed himself dated so many prostitutes, or why his gay brother pretended to be straight for a while, but those bombshells are forgotten almost as soon as they’re dropped.
Thesp’s perf is equally unfinished. No matter whom he’s portraying, he claps his hands to emphasize words and rubs his hand over his face when he’s thinking. Those gestures are so obviously his own tics that they break the illusion of a separate character.
An outside director could have corrected that, just as a seasoned playwright could have given the story a clear direction. But, since the show is already in a commercial run, it’s unlikely to get a creative overhaul. Here’s hoping Reed’s rich history gets a fresh start in a different project.