Twice during “Rites of Privacy,” performer-writer David Rhodes seems genuinely in control. The first time comes early in the play, when he takes on the role of a fading Southern belle; the second is near the end, when Rhodes gives voice to a lonely Eurotrash club kid. For the rest of his one-man show — an anthology of first person stories told by various Jewish characters of both genders and many national origins — Rhodes seems to be getting his sea legs.
His ship eventually sinks, sadly. Rhodes is trying for an alloy of sweetness and shock, but the materials he smelts together veer too far toward extremes to make the combination work. He has weaknesses for the cloying and the appalling, and sometimes indulges both at once.
“Rites of Privacy” opens on Rhodes, onstage with a dressing table, a mirror, a makeup case and a coat rack full of costumes: He’s changing into the dress he will wear as the aging deb queen. As he does so, Rhodes tells the first of several interstitial stories about his dysfunctional childhood, giving off the soon-to-return feeling that we are witnessing the theatrical airing of some very old, dirty laundry.
For the first segment, though, it’s easy to put those misgivings aside. Clarinda Delaboise, Rhodes’ towering Georgian lady, harbors a nasty secret about her husband’s death. The eventual revelation isn’t vile or mean-spirited — it’s just sad, and it illuminates this armor-plated character, holding up to the light the things that can embarrass her enough to penetrate her defenses. Rhodes seems to know that Clarinda is both grand and a little silly, and to love her excesses.
Rhodes then changes costumes and tells us more about his life; when done, he starts the play’s downward spiral with a New Hampshire fisherman’s considerably less engaging tale and a thoroughly distracting parody of a New England accent. This is the first inkling that regional dialects are a big part of Rhodes’ act. It’s also the first time we see that the overperformance that feeds Clarinda so well is the only trick in Rhodes’ bag.
The next few stories rush by: WWII-era German escapee Moishe Rosenbaum, who has a jarring and unearned dance number in front of projected pictures of Hitler and the Nazis; and Susan, whose do-it-yourself abortion scene is both unmentionably horrible and completely pointless.
Finally, there’s a character known only by his personal ad handle, boi4u2use, who fares a little better. He’s an immigrant from Belgium (more heavily accented shenanigans here) who finds the love of his life in the New York club scene. The scenario is dated — nightclub squalor has abated somewhat since this undated story took place — but the details indicate some level of expertise on Rhodes’ part. The monologue drags at the beginning (“I was picked on” is the first part of nearly all these stories), but the eventual tragedy that befalls the young man and his boyfriend is genuinely touching.
It’s not enough, though. Rhodes tells us his own secret at the end of the play, but by then most auds will be too tired of the show’s contrivances to care.
The multi-character autobiographical solo play is a crowded genre requiring a level of nuance that Rhodes either doesn’t possess or that director Charles Loffredo has counseled him against in favor of broad melodrama. “Rites of Privacy” isn’t a waste of an evening, but, unlike its characters, it has nothing surprising to say.