Mark Leonard’s sojourn through the love affair between a savvy transvestite and his clueless swain has one element in common with such mistaken gender romances as “The Crying Game” and “M Butterfly”: They all end in tragedy. Leonard creates a compelling portrait of two lost souls who cling to each other to fulfill a deep need to be loved, but fails in his awkward attempt to justify the horrific resolution to their relationship. The playwright’s unsatisfactory conclusion does not diminish the transcendent performances of Michael Matts as Nikki, a black Times Square prostitute, and J.D. Evermore as Bobby, a WASP-to-the-core Mississippi deputy sheriff.
Set in pre-AIDS 1979 over a long weekend, the sensual and often comedic Nikki/Bobby pas de deux is played out entirely in the transvestite’s seedy Times Square hotel room and is punctuated with other locales through monologue commentaries from Southern newsman Jay Bradley (Ian Gregory), Bobby’s wife (Jamie Austin), Nikki’s hooker ally (Paula Leffmann), Bobby’s old family friend Tom Campbell (Joe Inscoe) and the hotel desk clerk (Joe DeMonico). The callow young peace officer, who came to the Big Apple to attend a national law enforcement seminar, believes he is indulging in a brief fling with a female hooker. Instead, he finds himself surprised by and then physically captivated by Nikki, a brilliant but thoroughly needy homosexual street walker.
The playwright, who also directs, instills keen intuitiveness into the developing romance between Nikki and Bobby. The sexually driven Bobby, though originally repulsed by Nikki’s gender revelation, is quite believably drawn into his new lover’s world of sex and drugs, temporarily forgetting his reason for coming to New York and the fact he has a wife and two sons back in Mississippi. It is actually endearing to witness their evolving relationship as each begins to open his soul, completely revealing and committing himself to the other. In one hilarious scene, a monumentally incredulous Nikki attempts to correct Bobby’s simple-minded, biased view of the Civil War.
What is incomprehensible, is the unseen violence at the end of the play that is described but never justified. Campbell’s remembrance of Bobby’s youthful revulsion at killing a deer and the hotel clerk’s matter-of-fact description of the lethal events that occur after Bobby’s departure from Nikki’s room do nothing to illuminate the underlying reasons behind Bobby’s behavior. It merely serves to end the play.
Matts is utterly brilliant as Nikki, an inherently superior being who has allowed himself to be diminished by his abused childhood and his weakness for men and chemical substances. His Nikki flawlessly segues between female and male personas, slowly allowing his tough, street-wise facade to give way to his deep-seated hunger to finally belong to someone.
Evermore’s too-naive-to-believe Bobby offers a perfect counterbalance. He exudes a genuine confusion at actually falling in love with a black man.
And there is a captivating innocence in his gee-whiz discovery of the wonders of cocaine and of being the object of flirtatious curiosity at a gay bar.
The supporting cast, though never interacting with the two protagonists, gives effective support. This is especially true of Leffman’s hooker, who is comically business-like as she relates a menage a trois encounter with Bobby and Nikki. Also memorable is Inscoe’s Campbell, who poignantly recalls a fatherless lad who was too sensitive for the macho world of guns and hunting.
Rob Mulholland’s stark bedroom setting certainly sets the proper mood for the Nikki/Bobby shenanigans. Though uncredited, Nikki’s transvestite outfits are a show unto themselves.