By Jon Jensen
Bleach is not your typical night at the theatre.
The trip to the venue itself becomes a part of the show. The Citymapper app led me to a stop on the L-train a couple of stations past most of the Brooklyn hipster haunts. A sign hung from an iron gate. “Bleach” it read, with an arrow pointing down.
For almost any gay man in the age of Grindr or Scruff, the experience feels eerily familiar. An address takes you to a part of town you’ve never been, past the garbage bins, down a flight of stairs to a basement. At the door, I was asked if I gave my permission for the performer to touch me. I agreed and walked into the studio, decorated with the kind of furniture you might be lucky to find on the street. A couple of sofas, few old armchairs, coffee table. And against the back wall a bed, where a man lies seemingly asleep.
The set for the immersive play is perfect. It feels exactly like the type of place and neighborhood where Tyler, a sex worker, would live. Even though the venue can seat up to 10, watching Bleach feels like a play staged for you alone.
British playwright/performer Dan Ireland-Reeves wrote and starred in the original production of the play, which is equal parts titillation, social commentary and cautionary tale. For this staging, the script has been adapted to remove its references to London, replacing them with New York-specific ones. For the most part, this works. A New Yorker will know the implications of what it means to live that far out in Bushwick, to work with clients who inhabit Upper East Side penthouses.
The script, however, alludes to issues of class which can be so much more marked in a British context than they are in New York. Both London and New York present formidable challenges to someone trying to survive and find connection, but Americans often overlook how much coming from a lower-class background creates seemingly insurmountable barriers to success.
Zach Carey directs the 65-minute show, which plays twice an evening alternating between two actors, Eamon Yates and Brendan George. George played Tyler for the performance I attended. The play is a challenging one, especially for the actor(s). George seems at first to be perfectly cast as the 24-year-old Tyler, who is somewhat naively drawn into the sex trade. His Tyler is deeply seductive and confident to the point of audacity. But unfortunately, the performance shied away from the darker and grittier aspects of the character.
The script calls for a Tyler who hails from a working-class background, trying desperately to fit into a higher class. But George, despite all his appeal, seems a little too sophisticated, even blue-blood, for the role. As a result, the horrible situation Tyler is drawn into feels a bit like a hackneyed warning against working as a “rent boy.”
This particular performance of Bleach left me deeply curious to find out how the experience would have been seeing Ireland-Reeves perform his own work. Nonetheless, the experience of seeing Bleach is one that I will not soon forget.
637 Wilson Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn
Through March 10
Jon Jensen is an educator, poet and visual artist. His writing has appeared in Out Magazine, Lambda Literary and St. Sebastian Review. Follow Jensen on Instagram @scribblesjensen.