Playwright Michael Aman scored a solid hit when Fort Lauderdale's Island City Stage gave his comedy "POZ" its world premiere in 2014.
Now Aman and Island City have teamed up for another world premiere, this one a "dramedy" titled "Feeding the Bear."
The laughs in this new play are fewer, deliberately so. Most are supplied by the dialogue Johnnie Bowls has as Martini, a public access TV chef whose show "Cooking Is a Drag" features him in fabulous full drag themed to whatever he's whipping up. While making tequila chicken with mole sauce, for example, Martini is dressed as a spicy señorita whose big-hair wig sports a sombrero that would fit a Barbie doll.
In "Feeding the Bear," Aman explores or touches on a host of serious subjects, including Alzheimer's disease, body dysmorphia, family dysfunction, marital betrayal, suicide, bulimia, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, online hookups and mental illness. If that seems like a lot of ground to cover in a 90-minute play, it is, but the abundance of personal details makes for some multifaceted characters.
Aman's story centers on the Adams family. Father Bear Adams (Kevin Reilley), a longtime widower, is in the throes of Alzheimer's disease. He's often angry and agitated, forgets that his wife Mary died long ago, and attacks his grown son and daughter – verbally and sometimes physically.
Joey Adams (Andy Rogow), an English teacher, has moved back to the family farm to be his father's caregiver. He's gay, massively insecure and certain that his breasts are enormous, though they aren't. Lonely and frustrated by his father's worsening condition, he's a big fan of Martini's unconventional cooking show.
Chrissy Adams (Niki Fridh) is Joey's sister, a divorcee who has never been able to get her act together as a fully functioning adult. She's an ex-bulimic, an avid pot smoker and a woman who embraces online dating as an efficient way to have sex.
Staged by Michael Leeds, with typically excellent work from Island City's design team (Michael McClain devised the rustic set, Peter A. Lovello the costumes, Ardean Landhuis the lighting and David Hart the sound), "Feeding the Bear" takes each of its characters on a journey to a slightly better place.
For Martini – real name Martin – and Joey, a meeting in a bar is followed by one extremely awkward first date and then the hint of a possible relationship. For Chrissy, the pattern of trying to run from discomfort may be coming to an end. Vulnerable, difficult Bear makes at least a little peace with his grown kids.
Aman creates intriguing characters, and the situation in which Bear, Joey and Chrissy find themselves is certainly one that will resonate with plenty of adults whose elderly parents have ongoing medical issues. How strong the play might be going forward isn't so easy to judge because of the uneven quality of the performances in the world premiere.
Reilley is strong and utterly convincing as a man whose mind is betraying him. Fridh is a charismatic Chrissy, a woman who's all about numbing pain and keeping life uncomplicated.
Rogow, on the other hand, has a tough time convincingly playing Joey's body dysmorphia, and though he's jittery around Martin, he doesn't make you feel sympathy for the self-sabotaging messiness of Joey's life.
Though Bowls gets to play many varieties of flamboyant as Martini – Mexican, Japanese and a down-home southern gal – he's actually better in his scenes as Martin. Cooking in drag, he must pretend to whip up several dishes as he intersperses cooking show patter with the zingers Aman supplies, resulting in lots of verbal flailing. He also refers to the viewers as "beaches," a weird pronunciation that sounds more like it belongs on the travel channel. Don't know how Martini's food tastes, but at the moment, the drag part of the actor's performance is a hot mess.
"Feeding the Bear" is an Island City Stage production running through July 3 at the Abyss Theatre, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 954-519-2533 or go to www.islandcitystage.org.