Just what was on the mind of actor-turned-playwright Austin Pendleton when he wrote “Uncle Bob” isn’t an easy guess. The one-act two-hander, a difficult, unsettling but at times absurdly pretentious exercise in psychological drama, assumes an air of significance largely through its stylized dialogue and grim subject matter. Pendleton has a rockier, not entirely unsuccessful go at convincing that the play’s substance merits the intellectual trappings.
The playwright clearly owes a debt to Pinter, although audiences might be divided over whether it’s a debt worth paying. The arch, brittle dialogue — which less resembles natural conversation than overly rationalized meditations spoken in a stream-of-consciousness style — is heavy with declarations that make the mundane seem sinister, and vice versa.
“I think it’s terrible that you don’t know where the dustpan is,” says one character to the other. “I think it’s terrifying.”
That character is Bob (George Morfogen), an aging, failed writer slowly succumbing to AIDS. An ostensible heterosexual whose few and unprotected flings with men exposed him to the virus, Bob is left alone in his small New York apartment, deserted (for reasons never made clear) by an apparently loving wife whom Bob talks to (or, rather, at) as if she were still present.
It’s during a typical one-sided conversation with his absent wife that Bob is interrupted by nephew Josh (Adam Sumner Stein), who walks unannounced into the apartment. The 20-ish Josh, apparently having run away from his Midwestern home, immediately begins insulting, berating and otherwise abusing his uncle, tossing off enough anti-gay slurs to suggest that the boy doth protest too much.
Remainder of the play has the two characters whittling away at each other’s delicate psyches, the uncle exasperated at the nephew’s wasted potential and the nephew scornful of the uncle’s failed life. “Josh,” says Bob in a typical exchange, “in you the trashy horror of the times is — and I don’t mean this as an insult — vividly alive.”
Pendleton seems to be suggesting that uncle and nephew are more alike than not, perhaps even two sides of the same person. Is Josh really the young Bob come back to confront the older, dying self? The playwright, and director Kelly Morgan, opt for an impressionistic style that allows for any interpretation. Unfortunately, Pendleton also pushes the boundaries of plausibility (to say nothing of taste and restraint) by making overt what might better have stayed covert. Incest and possible suicide by voluntary HIV infection might be logical extensions of Pendleton’s course, butthe denouement smacks heartily of avant-garde pretension and shock value.
Morfogen and Stein turn in surprisingly effective performances, capturing, as does Morgan’s deliberate direction, the play’s chilly, intellectualized nature. The Mint Theater Company, a relative newcomer to the Off Off Broadway scene, provides an appropriate, low-cost physical production.
Whether all this is worth 95 grueling minutes of cruelty remains, in the end, a matter of taste. Pendleton’s serious efforts shouldn’t be ignored, but psychological vivisection must surely demand more than worthy intentions.