The faint sounds of Jimmy Buffett’s “Last Mango in Paris” play as the pre-show music, but as the lights dim and the show starts, the music becomes gradually louder. It sounds like it’s being played on a mid-2000s car radio. The curtain rises and reveals an aggressively chic movie theater lobby, with incongruently and amateurishly chosen antique furniture on stage right; a pretense dripping little candy shop towards the center that stretches a few feet back into the stage; large signage with faux-vintage lettering announcing pretentiously movie times (Over the Hedge and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace); which hangs above a little checkout station. KYLE, 25, sits on the edge of the desk, dressed in denim jacket festooned with pins, brown boots, and burgundy pants. He jumps right in.
KYLE: Last year, I thought it would be an interesting, albeit perhaps maudlin and sentimental, idea to write a play about my father, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his death as well as his sixty-fifth birthday. But then I realize I had done the math wrong and it would actually have been the ninth anniversary and he would have been sixty-six. Doesn’t take a nuclear physicist played by Denise Richards to figure out why I’m a writer and not someone who is rich and good at math. It’s this year that it’ll be 10 years since his death, and it will be his 67th birthday.
A theater attendant (JACK, who we will meet later, defined by his bobbly head) steps out from behind the checkout desk.
THEATER ATTENDANT/JACK: We will be seating for our double feature of A Christmas Story and Radio Days in fifteen minutes.
KYLE: A Woody Allen movie??? You’re all canceled!!
Anyways, for the first couple years after my father’s death, while I was still in high school, and while I was still basically trapped in the house I grew up in with a mother with whom I had a tempestuous relationship — I like to invoke Gwyneth Paltrow and say we “consciously uncoupled” — I did not think of my father. I semi-actively avoided it, thinking it would do me no good. I put more time into being self-destructive in other ways, like deciding to want to become a writer.
CHARLES walks out onto the stage and sits in one of the chairs.
KYLE: I have been thinking of him more lately. I don’t know why, and, even though I have health insurance, I’ve been really lazy about trying to find a therapist to tell me why, help me connect the dots between my conscious and subconscious self. I have, in the meantime, been rewatching Frasier.
I have been dreaming about my father a lot lately, over the past two a half years. He’ll appear in my dreams just as he was, looking kind of like Ted Levine, that guy who was Capt. Stottlemeyer on Monk, and Ted Levine was the same guy who played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and I feel like that accounts for some sort of unresolved stuff as well. But anyways, nothing has changed about him in my dreams. His posture still curves forward from the hunching over, his legs fighting against MS, his spine informed by the shape of the gaudy dark teal colored recliner he would fall asleep in while we would watch movies together. He doesn’t snore like a chainsaw in my dreams because he’s awake. He still has his mustache, his gruff, if amiable voice, his beer belly. He had a beer belly before the surgery. That’s the thing that was almost missing after he had a surgical procedure to insert a device that would adjust his experience with MS.
He still wears cargo shorts, which he wore all year round, weather be damned. His hair is still corn colored and wheat thin, falling on his head feather like. He still had a hairline, which is, honestly, impressive for a white guy his age. He looks like, despite his bad posture and trembling standing up and walking around, not yet with a cane, like he is most at home behind the wheel of his Winnebago — yes, we had one of those.
In my dreams I can hear him talk, I can hear him tell me how he is, what he’s been doing. In my dreams he’s come out of hiding or faked his death or tries to return into my life, only tacitly acknowledging his abrupt departure. There’s little to no nod of a car crash, instead it feels like one of those true crime shows he loved, with the soap operatic twists in plot. Rather than relief in seeing him, I will feel a pang of betrayal, resentment, like he’s to blame for my exhaustion, my fractured relationship with my mother.
BETSY, Kyle’s mother, comes out, sits on the steps on the far end of the stage.
KYLE: The encounters are less explosive than your average episode of General Hospital, but there’s an aspect of surreality, an unbelief that he’s there or that my life could have taken on a different path, one that feels, in that moment, less broken than I’m feeling it is. It’s not that bad. But his death wasn’t exactly Sunday in the Park with George. His return is like when Naomi Watts wakes up from her slumber in Mulholland Drive, remembering that the heartbreak she had cast off into an unrecognizable dreamscape and then repurposed to bring her, I don’t know, strength and happiness, was still there all along. The possibility of what my life could have been if he were still alive is what nags at these dreams, a burning question, a prod of, “Would you give up the life you’ve made for yourself in New York for your father to be back?” But the betrayal at his return is too great in the dream, or too bewildering, for catching up normally, as if nothing had happened. It’s too confusing and overwhelming for me to show him exactly what that life I have made is.
He leaves towards the end of the dream, rarely explaining why he’s returned or why he’s faked his death, he just says he has to go. He leaves me where we meet, sometimes on the beach on Cape Cod, or at a diner in Connecticut, in the lobby of a fancy hotel near Christmas, straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. And, personally, I believe I am fully entitled to paid time off the day after I wake up from one of those dreams. It should be in my contract.
But I set out to write a play last year about coming out to my father, because I’m basic. He died before I could come out to him or tell him I use the word queer to indicate I have student loan debt. I’ve seen Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and there’s a scene in which part-time lovers Russell and Glen act out, lying in bed facing one another, coming out. Artist type Glen prods orphan Russell into coming out to Glen-as-Russell’s-father, and though Russell finds it ridiculous at first, they proceed. It begins as a foreign experience but turns easily into an act of catharsis or exorcism or freedom.
JACK, lanky, with an Alec Baldwiny head, comes out.
KYLE: I’ve enlisted my friend Jack to help me with this scene from Weekend. He’ll be playing Glen because I’m the one with the daddy and mommy issues. Ready?
JACK: I’ve had three drinks, you know I’m ready.
KYLE pulls up a couple of rickety chairs so they face one another, and CHARLES and BETSY look on.
KYLE: We’re reenacting post-coital conversation from the film, which is not a stretch.
JACK: Fuck off.
They begin playacting.
JACK: Do you ever think about finding your parents?
KYLE: No, not really.
JACK: Why not?
KYLE: I don’t really see the point. You know, I don’t think it would change anything.
JACK: Why don’t I pretend to be your dad and you can come out to me?
KYLE: [laughs] That is SO weird.
JACK: Just ignore the fact we just had sex.
KYLE: I don’t think I can. Guess I’ll try. Ok. [looks Glen in the eye]
KYLE: Dad? I got something I need to tell you.
JACK: [pretending to be Russell’s dad] What’s that?
KYLE: I’m gay.
JACK: [pretends to think] Hmm.
KYLE: I like guys, not girls.
JACK: [breathes out slowly] Well. You know what, son. It doesn’t matter to me. I love you just the same. And guess what?
JACK: I couldn’t be more proud of you than if you were the first man on the moon.
KYLE: Thank you so much, Jack. Take a little bow.
JACK bows, and then goes off to the side with Charles.
KYLE: It should be known that should anyone be inclined to unpack the Freudian nature of both the scene in question, as well as our reenactment of that scene, that Jack has a twin brother and did not tell me that his name was also Kyle until we stopped seeing each other.
As I was saying, I set out to write a play about my father and what I remember from our relationship because I never got to come out to him in reality, so I thought fiction would be good enough. I thought imagining a conversation would not necessarily be the toughest thing for me to do [air quotes, simpering voice] as a writer. And then I ran into this roadblock. I couldn’t remember his speech patterns. I could hear his voice in my head, I could hear what it sounded like and in my dreams he spoke the way he always did. But in waking hours, I realized I couldn’t replicate it on the page, and I couldn’t mimic it either. It was devastating realizing this, and I was inclined to blame Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter. The internet addled my brain so much that it had thinned away the memories of what he spoke like. That made me feel like a failure and a disappointment, on a familial level. Validation is hard enough when you’re adopted. Love too have reactive attachment disorder.
The scariest thought is that it’s just me forgetting and I have no one to blame but myself. Not Twitter, not the internet, just me and my broken brain.
So I thought I would try anyways. I would create my own scene, my own space, with help from people. I wanted to set it on my turf, in a movie theater lobby. It’s not exactly intimate in the traditional way, but aren’t you tired of all the very emotional scenes that play out between parent and child taking place at diners or whatever?
PHUONG comes out, in her Hausu shirt.
KYLE: I also decided to use people’s real names, since I am a sadist, and this will never really be produced.
PHUONG: I’m baby.
KYLE: Phuong will help me with the scene as director. I love self-exorciating my trauma for the public, it’s like I’m the personal essay industrial complex!
PHUONG: Kyle’s relationship to his parents always gave me a different perspective about parent/child intimacy. It’s fundamental to his queerness in a way.
JACK: And it also informs his approach to cinema and power. He is self-aware, but he talks about his mother and father with a detachment. His contempt for sentimentality is like a fear of weakness and vulnerability.
As CHARLES is about to get up, Kyle puts up his hand.
KYLE: I’m thinking, give me a moment. Hold on, hold on, hold on.
PHUONG: What are you doing?
KYLE: I’m trying to conjure up my memories!! My emotions! Will them into life for this PLAY!
PHUONG: I don’t think that’s how that wor —
KYLE: Let me live!
KYLE waves his hands about like a magician who’s lost his license.
PHUONG: You’re trying too hard.
KYLE: Hey, can you come over?
CHARLES gets up, approaches KYLE and PHUONG.
KYLE: I’m ready.
PHUONG: Alright then.
PHUONG walks to the stairs where there is a control center, puts on a headset.
PHUONG: Bring the lights down. Focus on the two leads. Give me a burned look.
Lights change, different from the white-ish light from before.
KYLE: [starting mid-conversation] …and this is a movie theater I go to every so often, they have great programming. They have showed James Bond movies and they showed the old Fun with Dick and Jane once.
CHARLES: So you still like James Bond then.
KYLE: Yes, absolutely. I keep writing about James Bond. I like to bang on the door of editors to let me write about James Bond.
CHARLES: What do you think of the new ones? Is Dan…
KYLE: Daniel, Daniel Craig, yeah, he’s amazing. He’s kind of cheeky in the press conferences and there’s this huge, weird gap in what he seems to think in real life and how he is on screen. But Skyfall was really good, that had Javier Bardem and he was in No Country for Old Men, and then Spectre was great too, but I seem to be the only person who likes it. That guy, Christoph Waltz, he played Hans Landa, the Nazi, in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
CHARLES: Did I see that?
KYLE: I think we saw it together. I think you probably fell asleep.
CHARLES: [chuckles] So you’re in New York City writing about movies, bud.
KYLE: [aside] I remember he always referred to me as “bud”.
[to CHARLES] Unless we’re all living in a simulation. I actually don’t like this theater that much, it’s kind of bougie and —
KYLE: It’s like fake fancy. It’s cold and severe. But, I like the movies they show at least.
CHARLES: They have all this candy. And popcorn with olive oil?
KYLE: Brooklyn trends come to Manhattan.
CHARLES: Do you like Brooklyn?
KYLE: I like my neighborhood a lot. But I work in Manhattan. I go to shows sometimes, plays mostly. There was a Jimmy Buffett musical called Margaritaville. I wish I could have taken you. And also he was in the new Harmony Korine movie! It’s called The Beach Bum. And also I worked at an inn in Provincetown for a couple of summers as a house boy! It was a really familial environment. Speaking of which, I keep trying to get Uncle Jimmy to come out, because talking to him on the phone is kind of agonizing. But… I’m glad he calls.
CHARLES: You should talk to him.
KYLE: I know. He’s the only family member on… any side that has tried to keep in contact with me since you died. But… I wish I had a copy with me, but I got to write for the New York Times!
CHARLES: That’s so cool, Ky!
KYLE: [aside] My parents called me “Ky” and “Ky guy”.
CHARLES: Did you write a movie review?
KYLE: Yes, and… Can we stop for a moment? I feel like I’m being too needy. Am I being cliched? Should we be at a coffee shop?
PHUONG: What movie are you seeing?
KYLE: We are seeing a repertory screening of A Christmas Story. I’m just worried that this sounds unnatural. That this is leading to a very obvious checkpoint in conversation.
PHUONG; What do you want out of this?
KYLE: I’m worried that I’m sounding unnatural. There’s too much, like a million little shards of glass.
CHARLES: You’re the one creating it. And you said “unnatural” already.
KYLE: Would my memory of you be proud of me? Would the real you be proud of me? Is the dream, fiction, phantasm you proud of me?
CHARLES: I heard you still like Friends but have been watching Frasier lately.
KYLE: Yes. They put both on Netflix, and everyone is obsessed with Friends in a fairly ironic way these days, you know, cultural nostalgia for detritus and whatnot, but everyone seems to watch it again. They don’t have the extra footage that was on the DVDs though. I still have those DVDs you bought me. I have been debating about whether I want to get the Blu-ray set.
CHARLES: You still buy DVDs?
KYLE: Compulsively. Having physical media, something tactile, is important to me. I still have all the Bond ones you and mom got me. There’s a James Bond exhibit in New York. It’s not very good. And one in London too. Also, not great. The best one was probably in DC.
CHARLES: I remember when you told the manager at the gift shop that there were errors in the catalogue.
KYLE: I still have the deck of cards she gave me.
CHARLES: Frasier. I never watched that as much. I did like Cheers though.
KYLE: It’s good. On a joke to joke level, it’s probably better written than Friends, but Friends just has this amazing understanding of the chemistry that existed between the actors and the world within which they existed.
CHARLES: Joke to joke level?
KYLE: Yeah, like the construction and structure of the jokes. They’re most sophisticated. I have unfortunately become interested in jokes and standup.
CHARLES: Well, you always liked David Sedaris.
KYLE: I saw him last night. He read an essay about his father dying. I thought of you. And I wish you had gotten to meet my best friend from high school, Joe. We’re still close. He has the same birthday as you. He’s kind of a good asshole, in a way, and —
JACK: I think you’re drawing this out a bit and —
JOE, 5’9”, unsure of whether his aesthetic is more lumberjack from the Northeast or Bushwick hipster, enters.
JOE: You take for-fucking-ever with some things, man.
KYLE: Give me time.
[to Joe] Wait, when’d you show up?
JOE: The beauty of your unimaginative imagination. I remember in high school you wrote those funny essays, they were about you and our friends. You talk like you’re against the whole public consumption of personal issues stuff, but you’ve been doing that, or a version of that since high school.
JACK: So you’ve been on brand since you were 14.
JOE: In freshman year, he wrote an essay about his father’s death where the beginning lines, were like, “the worst thing I ever had to experience was having to watch Transformers, and the second worst thing was my father’s death”.
DEVORAH and TINA enter, sitting by the side.
JACK: So, yeah. What do you want him to say?
KYLE: I’m not sure. I’m too aware that staging this is perverse.
JACK: So is grief.
DEVORAH: But you like the perversity. It’s who you are as a person
TINA: The provocation and absurdity, even for public consumption, is why you like it. We know you.
DEVORAH: [to Tina] I wonder what it would be like if he tried to deal with his feelings in therapy or in real life. You know, not just in the movies or [facetiously] art.
JUAN, self-proclaimed neurotic Latino queer mess, enters.
JUAN: I didn’t read this draft, even though I said I would. I, like you, prefer the comfort of projection instead of confrontation and reconciliation. We are, after all, parodies of each other. Which is why I’m going to go watch Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, because I have no taste.
TINA: I think you’re distracting him.
JUAN: No, you’re distracting him!
[to audience] My father also died and I also did not get to come out to him, but instead of writing a play about it, I just sleep with gross, schlubby men, pretend Seth Rogen is attractive, and act as if I don’t have a drinking problem.
JACK: Me too!
STEPHEN THORPE, Kyle’s private middle school headmaster, stout, conservative, and with a commanding demeanor and tone, enters, also ready to assume the role of father.
STEPHEN/CHARLES: I’m sorry that you and your mother don’t talk.
KYLE: Dad, I’m queer. Which is the fancy way of saying I mostly like guys. And… I like queer cinema and I write about LGBTQ cinema and it’s an important part of my life.
STEPHEN/CHARLES: [brief pause before launching rockets] You brought me here for this? You resurrected me in your mind and in this lobby and on this stage so you could tell me you were a gay? That you’re a faggot? You think I didn’t already know. I knew. I didn’t want to talk about it because talking about it would have made it real, and it would have made the disappointment real. You’ve made your life here in New York and good for you, good for you. You were always such a spoiled brat. I think spoiling you was the problem. You wanted more than you deserved. Even if it meant turning into someone I don’t recognize. You keep talking about old things and memories and nostalgia. You didn’t know me. You asked me questions sometimes, but you didn’t bother knowing me. So I didn’t feel the need to know you because it would make you someone I didn’t need.
KYLE: This isn’t how it was supposed to go. This isn’t how you were supposed to —
STEPHEN/CHARLES: You spent too much time with your mother.
You should have manned up.
You should have done more sports.
You should have stopped listening to musicals.
You should have sucked it up in school.
You should have ridden your bike.
You shouldn’t have been in PTown.
You shouldn’t have loved movies.
You shouldn’t have acted in your fourth grade play.
You shouldn’t have been addicted to Instant Messaging.
You shouldn’t have loved Britney Spears.
You shouldn’t have asked me to waste my money on that Lindsay Lohan CD.
You shouldn’t have stayed inside.
If you were going to turn out this way, you shouldn’t have been adopted.
KYLE: Can we stop this? Can we start over?
JACK: Start over from where? From the beginning? You can’t start the story of your life over when it’s already happening.
PHUONG: Is this your worst case scenario?
KYLE: It doesn’t make sense. It’s not how I remember he was.
PHUONG: You don’t remember his occasional cruelty. That the way him and your mother interacted reminded you of Revolutionary Road. When he would discipline you, his words crashed into the last syllable of the consonant.
KYLE: But it’s not how we — he took me to Busch Gardens.
SEAN CONNERY enters, circa Goldfinger. He’s dressed like a cross between Charles’ dad-like casualness and James Bond’s chic attention to detail.
SEAN/CHARLES: Spoiled. Spoilt.
KYLE: I remember how he would get tired. How he struggled on his feet.
SEAN/CHARLES: I got tired. I struggled on my feet. There was a lot of walking. I couldn’t walk a lot. You always resented that. You resented something out of my control.
BETSY: [from the stairs] I tried explaining it to you, his MS.
KYLE: Shout out to Selma Blair, I guess. Represent?
SEAN/CHARLES: I already experienced the pain of the loss of a child once before you were adopted. It always felt like you were more Betsy’s child than mine. And I tried to change that when you were 12, when your mother and I separated. Tried to spend time with you and give you things.
JACK: This isn’t how your father would talk, this wasn’t how he sounded.
KYLE: I have to fill in the gaps. Can I just have the ending I want? Just this once?
PHUONG: I don’t think it will make things better.
JACK: As long as you know it’s fantasy.
RICK, Kyle’s manager at the inn he worked at in Provincetown, enters. He’s more daddy than dad, but warmth radiates nonetheless.
KYLE: Dad, I’m queer. Dad, I’m queer.
Dad, I’m queer. Dad, I’m queer.
Dad, I’m queer.
RICK/CHARLES: I know, I know,
I know, I know,
Can we not talk about it, you’re looking for something you can’t find.
Let’s not talk about it, you won’t find what you’re looking for.
JACK and PHUONG step up with a guitar and bass and begin playing “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. CHARLES, who once looked weak and frail, stands up straight. The CHARLES’ begin to sing
CHARLESES: I’ll say, say, say
I’ll say, say, say
I’ll say, say, say
I’ll say, say, say
I’ll say, say, say
Wait, they don’t love you like I love you
Wait, they don’t love you like I love you
Wait, they don’t love you like I love you
My kind’s your kind
I’ll stay the same
JACK and PHUONG move further back to reveal that a backtrack is playing. The song keeps going but CHARLES stops singing.
KYLE: Since when does he get a song and I don’t? This was supposed to be my show.
JACK: It’s out of your control. Every memory you recreate will be a copy of a copy.
KYLE: A happy ending isn’t worth it?
PHUONG: Worth it is not the point.
KYLE: I want a song.
TED/CHARLES: You always liked singing.
KYLE: I have secretly always wanted to be a torch singer.
JACK: Is this art as catharsis or a playful fantasy for you? You can’t have both.
KYLE: Who says?
[launches into “Nowadays”]
You can like the life you’re living
You can live the life you like
You can even marry Harry
And mess around with Ike
Neon lights burst on, PHUONG tosses KYLE a top hat and cane.
KYLE: And that’s good
Isn’t it grand
Isn’t it great
Isn’t it swell
Isn’t it fun
In fifty years or so
It’s gonna change, you know
But oh it’s heaven!
JACK: [pulling the plug] What a profound waste of everyone’s time.
PHUONG: Is this camp?
JACK: Low camp.
KYLE: I feel as if I’ve derailed everything. Just on the brink of a breakthrough. Funny how things…
JACK: Sentimentality won’t kill you.
KYLE: But it has to be earned.
PHUONG: When do you think you’ve earned it? Have you earned it here?
JACK: You’re scared. And a bad dramaturg. For this, at least.
KYLE: Very Dr. Crane of you. What, next you’re going to tell me I have abandonment issues?
TED LEVINE, looking not unlike he did on Monk, enters. The last father.
TED/CHARLES: Do you think you’re still sentimental and romantic? Like when you were a kid?
KYLE: Maybe. What’s left of that is beneath armor. But the further this gets away from me, the easier it is to do.
PHUONG: It’s not really yours anymore. Back to one.
KYLE: Give me a moment to… get into it. A moment of silence for Miss Sukowa.
KYLE: I think a part of you knew. Knew that I was queer. Maybe all of you. Mom tried to talk about it once. I kept avoiding it. I wonder if you both had conversations about it. That I’m a queer.
What did you say?
What did you want to say?
Are you saying anything at all?
The five CHARLESES — including Ted, Sean, Rick, Stephen, and Charles — create a circle around Kyle, almost like a seance of impossibility.
ALL CHARLESES: [intoning] I think what you want and need to hear is that you never needed to stage or write this in the first place. I love you just the way you are and I’m proud of you. And you should be able to feel that. Why do you think you see me in your dreams? You made it to New York to live your life.
KYLE: I just wish I could really hear it from you. I still think about the dramatic weight loss after your surgery, how I asked for things too much, how I singlehandedly destroyed your laptop from gay porn.
ALL CHARLESES: [intoning] That, and your pins, and when you dressed up and danced to that Cher song “Dark Lady” kind of gave it away. If I would have loved you any less, I would not have taken you to Provincetown.
KYLE: I lived there for a little bit. As a houseboy. A lot has changed, there’s no magazine shop anymore. But the used bookstore is still there. I would go so often they started to give me a discount. I try to go back every year and I think of you. We spread your ashes there.
ALL CHARLESES: [intoning] You don’t need to make up a new scene or an artificial memory to know that I love you. You’re my Ky-guy.
PHUONG: You need to wrap this up before it becomes corny. Do you want to say anything about your mother? I mean, besides the dozen essas you’ve written for Into.
KYLE: Xavier Dolan has that covered, gurl. [beat] Sorry. Being unable to have a functional relationship with my mother is like a loss in its own right, its own kind of grieving. I feel like much of my adult life has been trying to cling onto memories as they seem to wisp away from my grasp. Repeat them through writing. Maybe understand them.
PHUONG: Anything else?
KYLE: I wrote a joke about you for my standup set. “My dad is hotter than your dad, because he was cremated.”
The real Charles steps up, stands apart, to Kyle.
REAL CHARLES: You’ve created your own happiness. And sadness. And life. That’s enough to make me proud.
The light dims and only intensifies, as does the return of the Jimmy Buffett song, on Kyle as he goes in for a hug, a desire to be smothered by all of them, smothered by want and tenderness — he ends up only embracing nothingness.
The lights come back up again, and it’s only KYLE. Empty stage. Theater attendant comes out again.
JACK: The movie is about to start.
KYLE: One last thing.
KYLE sings Brendan Maclean’s “Never Enough” a capella. The lights dim gradually.
Tie me up and set alight
If it’s never enough just to say I’m sorry
Would you break it off like you never met me?
If it’s never enough
Is it ever enough?
So I will hold my head up higher
Bring these ashes back to life
’Cause it’s never enough
just to say I’m sorry
So I’m taking off like you never let me
It’s never enough
No, it’s never enough
I will lay down on your fire
Tie me up and set alight It’s never enough just to say I’m sorry
Would you break it off like you never met me?
It’s never enough
Radio sounds of Buffett. And the lights go off again.