Question: What amenity does an urban center for homeless LGBTQ youth need more than anything? Answer: Why, an Emily Post charm class, of course – so long as it’s like the one in Philip Dawkins’ funny, heart-warming play, “Charm.” This bona-fide charmer, now playing at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater, waltzed in from Chicago, having taken its inspiration from Miss Gloria Allen, the volunteer instructor of an LGBTQ etiquette class offered by The Center on Halstead, a shelter and safe place for the local queer community.
Sandra Caldwell, a black transgender woman of immense poise, beauty, and – pardon me, I can’t help it – charm, plays Mama Darleena Andrews, a role based on Miss Allen, who was 67 years old when she volunteered to establish a Charm School at the Center. Costumer Oana Botez has designed some attractively colorful suits and tasteful accessories for this elegant anachronism, who believes with all her great, big, generous heart that common courtesy is the very foundation of civilization.
“You are beautiful,” she tells her class, “but you are not charming!” Charm, she explains, comes from respecting yourself and others. It means that you don’t beat up, make fun of, pick on, shoot, stab, throw shade, or otherwise dis the other students taking the course. The kids in her class, who only showed up for the free refreshments, are so removed from the very notion of self-respect that Mama Darleena has to sit them down and tutor them in the manner of a kindergarten teacher explaining the great mystery of the alphabet to her babies. Indeed, she calls these little hoodlums her “babies,” while lovingly educating them in comportment.
Director Will Davis (the visionary behind “Men on Boats”), who identifies as transgender (as do several other cast members), directs a terrific ensemble cast in this bittersweet fantasy of perfect comity within the LGBTQ community. Once again, costumer Botez carefully suits clothes to character.
D (Kelly Simpkins), the uptight Center manager who is appalled by Miss Darleena’s throwback gender attitude, wears a crisply tailored man’s suit and tie. Ariela (a fiery Hailie Sahar) wears patterned black hose and a flashy fuchsia boa that identify her as a prostitute. The thuggish Beta (Marquise Vilson) is a gangbanger who lives in leathers. Partners Donnie (Michael David Baldwin) and Victoria (Lauren E. Walker) are cute in matching outfits. Jonelle (the effervescent JoJo Brown) looks darling in black sequined drag with matching black wings. Androgynous Logan (baby-faced Michael Lorz) wears unisex Brooks Brothers. And poor Lady (Marky Irene Diven), who has no idea whether he/she is in or out, is appropriately dressed in a shapeless sack.
The characters aren’t as stereotyped as they sound, and the uniformly excellent cast humanizes every last one of them. Mama Darleena calls them all “beautiful,” and her insistence on their saying positive things about each other allows them to acknowledge their own basic goodness. She calls it “good manners,” but we recognize it as human kindness.
The playwright’s command of language puts a nice kick in his dialogue. Donnie and Victoria talk one-hundred-percent-pure unprintable Street. JoJo’s educated drawl has some style. “All you Northside bitches just murderin’ each other all the time,” she charges. “At least on the Southside, sure they’ll shoot you, but they at least warn you first.” Ariela’s fierce rages are Latinate and rather elegant. And Lady’s lengthy rants are chaotic and crazy.
Mama Darleena’s composure in the middle of all this madness is inspiring. “Let’s cool it with the language, please,” she graciously requests. “And let’s remember to be respectful.” But when these baby beasts go too far, she rears up and delivers a rather marvelous disquisition on the subject of trans. “I have been living my truth since I was 19. On numbers alone, I am the authority in this room,” she says. “Now, pull your pants up, sit your butt down, and spit that gum in my hand!”
Like Miss Jean Brodie and other unconventional teachers, Miss Darleena employs unorthodox teaching methods that rattle the establishment, including her dictate that the students choose a gender and stick to it. (How else is she going to teach them how to behave at a formal tea dance?) But if that makes her gender-fluid students uncomfortable, she’s got an answer for that, too. “Fine! Butch queers over there. Sissy queers with me.”
For all its soft satire and good-natured laughs, “Charm” has some sharp points to make to the fractious trans community. “How does cuttin’ someone else down help you survive?” Mama demands to know. “The whole world is already out there trying to knock you down. You don’t need that from each other. In here, we build each other up!”
Dawkins treats his characters with respect – just the way that Mama Darleena wants her students to comport themselves. But he doesn’t know what to do with them in the shapeless second act, which lands with a dull thud. Mama Darleena would probably say that it lacks charm.