By James Bartholomew
It’s no secret: paying your way in the big city can be a tall order. So, when Tyler – Chinatown busboy by day, rentboy by night – finds himself in a world of violence and danger, he’s forced to decide whether the money makes it all worthwhile.
Upturning the underbelly of sex work isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but “Bleach,” written by Dan Ireland‑Reeves, keeps the story personal and intimate enough to be enthralling. The play is staged in the basement studio apartment that its protagonist calls home. Tyler, played at alternating performances by Eamon Yates and Brendan George, lies naked in bed as the audience enters his room. After he finally wakes up and grabs his underwear off the door rack, Tyler doesn’t hesitate to get hands‑on with his guests, seductively caressing and dancing for (and often on) them.
The close‑quarters seating and stark physicality of the performance makes “Bleach” feel vibrant and real. Designed by Joyce Hahn with antique furniture, taper candles, and dark oil paintings, Tyler’s basement looks like a desperate attempt to polish a jail cell – the perfect reflection of his dire circumstances. The “lived‑in” quality of the set extends to every corner of the show’s world thanks to a deceptively nuanced script and the heavy lifting of its actor.
Mr. George, who played the role of Tyler at the reviewed performance, exudes the confidence and authority that the part demands. Just about every line is saturated with a coquettish allure that’s equally playful and self‑satisfied. Tyler is clearly empowered by his work, but he admits to the tedium of it. “I hate dancing,” he confesses with an annoyed scowl mid‑striptease. If it’s not on the dance floor, then why bother? But even when the work is unglamorous, Tyler feels that he has found his calling. After all, if you enjoy your job, is it really work?
All of that changes when a regular client forces Tyler to be an accessory to a violent and heinous crime. Rather than serving as the play’s climax, the torrid incident provides the jumping‑off point for Tyler to discover what kind of man he is, and what he’s willing to do for the right price. Tyler is not immediately corrupted. His descent into moral depravity is a long and agonizing journey, a haunting investigation into the mundane nature of complicity. The prolonged deliberation means that when he finally decides once and for all whether to continue to sell his body, Tyler’s choice feels both natural and right for the character.
Tyler’s character arc is so gradual, it’s difficult to say whether he has a traditional arc at all. Throughout the story, the audience learns more and more about Tyler and what he’s capable of. The lively, charismatic twenty‑something that opens the show is distinctly less likeable by the play’s end. Whether he’s changed along the way or we’ve simply learned to see the truth that’s been softly out of focus is a bit of a toss‑up. That kind of character writing is a treat when done well, and “Bleach” executes it perfectly as it muses about the banality of evil.
If there’s one place where “Bleach” stumbles, it’s in the pacing. The main plot is interspersed with flashbacks of Tyler’s past relationships, his discovery in a middle‑school locker room that he is gay, and his fledgling experiences as a sex worker. That free‑associative structure crowds a story that, while weighty, ends up feeling padded. Especially towards the end, when the plot is at its most intriguing, the persistent flashbacks and asides almost overstay their welcome. It’s not for nothing that the show’s slowest moments hit right when the audience seems to be falling out of love with its protagonist, but it’s hard to deny that the play sags as it begins winding down.
If that criticism seems pedantic, it’s only because the rest of “Bleach” is so carefully honed. Mr. George is delightful as Tyler and has a distinct knack for mischievously coy turns that make the character pop. Far from gimmicky, the intimate staging is an ideal entry point into Tyler’s strange world, and the frequent audience interactions enhance the believability. Those who like their theatre more “hands‑off” might find the immediacy of the piece somewhat off‑putting, but that disquiet is exactly what makes “Bleach” so infectious and intoxicating.
Performed by Eamon Yates & Brendan George
January 4 – March 10, 2019, 7pm & 9pm daily
Directed by Zack Carey
Photo: Hunter Canning
637 Wilson Avenue, Bushwick
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.