A Play that is also like a Short Story Collection: MY OLD MAN (and OTHER STORIES)

Photo by Peter Yesley

Photo by Peter Yesley

As Joy Williams puts it directly in her short story Honored Guest:

Like everyone, Lenore had a dread of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked. There were billions upon billions of people, after all, it wasn’t out of the question.

This concern feels similarly present and matter-of-fact in My Old Man (and Other Stories), a sad new literary play by Jess Barbagallo, where characters fail, one after another, to connect due to the many challenges, maybe even impossibilities, of seeing anyone for who they really are. At least, that is what the play suggests, though you might not know it in the moment because you’ll be laughing at this kind of exchange:

Barry: No. I’m not a veteran.
Andrea: I swore you were a veteran.
Barry: Why? Why would you make that up?
Andrea: I swore I saw a flag coming up the stairs.
Barry: You were listening to a special on PBS.
Andrea: NPR. And I wasn’t.

In My Old Man, characters repeat themselves, talk past one another, and hash out old fights they’ve surely had before, in ways that seem clownish and absurd in the moment, but after the play, leave you feeling blue. The language in the play is often poetic and strange, shining unexpected light on the real, sad ways that we often miss one another, even as we suffer in close proximity.

The characters of My Old Man are loosely connected by a shitty apartment building (where no one has seen the landlady “since the early aughts”), their stories sometimes intersecting in Barry’s apartment where various characters have business with Barry and one neighbor breaks in just to read October magazine on the floor. But mostly, the play unfolds like a short story collection, connected more by common questions rather than any kind of linear plot. While watching My Old Man, I wondered:

-Why do we fail to appreciate the goodness of the people in front of us?

-Why is it hard to give “care that does not rely on instant gratification”? The play does not offer an answer, because yeah, there isn’t a good one. Though, the opposite of the answer, whatever it is, is surely at the root of our capitalist ways, where everything is an exchange: a give-and-take at best, and sometimes just a take-take-take. Why is it so hard to give? And what sorry people we become when no one gives to us. All the characters of My Old Man could use a little more giving. But waiting to be given anything, the play also suggests, only makes things worse. Can we give to ourselves? I wondered this, too.

-Why do certain people think that everything—from public space to physical interaction—is theirs for the taking? My Old Man points a direct finger at the cis-dudes who have internalized and perpetuate the patriarchy. This aspect of the piece stood out, compared to other more complicated ideas in the play and the ways in which most of its characters defy simple judgement. But in light of Trump’s “grab em by the pussy” comment, and in light of the assaults that occur everyday and will continue to occur until we recognize this mindset as a form of violence, this straightforward question bears repeating. Or maybe this is really connected to the question above: why do people just take?

-And then: what about nature, during all of this? What is the grass thinking, as we fail to communicate with one another during our lunch breaks in the park? As it turns out, the grass is not impressed.

Like the themes that connect the different worlds of each scene, the casting of My Old Man also seems to follow the logic of a short story collection. The actors in the cast form an assembly of different ages, gender-identities, energies and performance approaches. They feel connected by something more abstract, but also permitted to do their own singular thing under Barbagallo’s sensitive direction.

This doesn’t happen for me with film or theater so much, but sometimes, when I am reading a good novel, I fall so much in love with a character that I don’t want the book to end. I felt this way about Andrea, a totally-foreign-yet-somehow-familiar invention of Barbagallo’s brought to magnetic life by Emily Davis. Andrea is like a pastiche of everything—1920’s cinema, the desperation of Blanche Dubois, the oddness of a Jane Bowles character—compressed into one strange being that feels so cohesive and so true. Her character speaks in nostalgic tautologies, given existential meaning by Davis’ pitch-perfect and fully committed, while entirely arbitrary and inappropriate ways of holding herself, of moving her body, of scrunching her face. It is as if Andrea invents both language and the rules of social interaction with every word and move—and it is so, so wonderful to watch.

After the play, I didn’t want to think about the piece too much, but this was because the isolation and little ways that we come together that it shows— it all reminded me too much of my own life. At one point in the play, when Andrea almost becomes friends with another character (but fails), she muses that a romantic comedy is “something you watch on a plane – to forget the danger.” This play is not that.

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