Back unto the breach, two D.C. area theater companies have returned to live, in-person performances with very different comedies about family skeletons tumbling out of the closet. Both plays are the work of acclaimed Black queer writers based in Philadelphia, and both ply a distinct wit in portraying how past prevarications can ripple through the present into the future.
James Ijames’ Moon Man Walk (★★★★☆), staged beautifully by Angelisa Gillyard at Constellation Theatre, is well-served by a four-person cast conveying the writer’s cleverly off-kilter comic voice in pitch-perfect harmony. The entire production speaks in a unified voice and runs like a well-oiled machine. A.J. Guban’s transporting scenic design starts in the guise of a bright, cratered moonscape, rendered via projections onto the walls, furniture, and floor. Supple lighting, also designed by Guban, assists Gillyard’s liquid transitions from the moon to other locations, from fantasy to reality, between present and flashbacks.
Caught between the moon and solid ground, trying to decipher his true history, is Spencer (Jonathan Del Palmer), a young Black man who warns — or boasts — early on that he has “zero emotional intelligence.” Spencer mostly attributes his stunted sense of awareness to his mother, Esther (Renee Elizabeth Wilson), whom he loves dearly but fears may have coddled him. Esther raised her boy on her own, instilling in him an elaborately heroic image of his absent father as an astronaut who became stranded on the moon.
Upon Esther’s death, Spencer learns the shocking real T about his dad. Then, with the help of the very pushy Petrushka (Jasmine Joy Brooks), a wisecracking whirlwind whom he meets on the flight home to Philly, he tries to wrestle his lifelong feelings of abandonment into submission. The scope of the couple’s journey together is relatively modest, the issues at hand both intimate and universal. The execution is the thing, as the cast — including Patrick M. Doneghy, hilarious in multiple roles — nail the play’s mix of sass and whimsy undergirded by the melancholy of loss.
Palmer stretches man-boy Spencer in appealing and surprising directions, like when he and Petrushka flirtatiously cut a rug to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love.” And co-star Brooks not only earns laughs with every other line, but also captures the clear emotional intelligence that Petrushka so vitally brings to the table. In their deft hands, Palmer and Petrushka are a match made 35,000 feet above the ground — soon to beam onto the screens of an even wider audience when the show trades in-person performances for video-on-demand streaming presentation starting August 27.
Perisphere Theater’s production of Time Is On Our Side (★★★☆☆), by best-selling author and humorist R. Eric Thomas, grabs its laughs while maneuvering a more methodical path to revealing its mysteries. The play’s protagonist, podcaster Annie (Emily Dalton), only reluctantly plunges into long-held secrets kept by her dead relatives. Her busybody friend and podcast partner Curtis (Jordan Brown) forces the issue, after getting his hands on the diary of Annie’s grandmother. Despite her ambivalence, Annie has little choice but to confront her family’s past.
The progressive queer narrative that she and Curtis uncover pours out gradually in dramatic tête-à-têtes pairing off one or the other with her grandma’s contemporaries, Mr. Blankenship (Leo Delgado) and Mr. Ramondi (Pauline Lamb, solid in several roles). Cantankerous coots, both gay, they hold keys to help unlock personal history that shouldn’t be forgotten by younger queer folks like Annie and Curtis. An additional subplot, involving conflict between the podcasting pals over whether or not to air Annie’s family secrets on their show, doesn’t achieve the same resonance.
Gerrad Alex Taylor’s staging just misses a few other targets, too, though it makes good use of Greg Stevens’ homey, economical set. Primarily, the snappy timing and attitude of Thomas’ writing doesn’t come through in Dalton’s lead performance. Brown’s Curtis, on the other hand, lives up to the script and fun physicality of the character — although the actor could use a firmer grip on his lines. But it’s Delgado, outstanding in a number of supporting roles, especially as old queen Blankenship, who wields the show’s sharpest comic edge, polished to a shine of impressive depth and color, connecting the past to now.
Moon Man Walk in-person performances run through Aug. 22 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $10-49, plus fees. Video-on-Demand is available for streaming Aug. 27 to Sept. 12. VOD tickets are $20 per household, plus fees. Visit www.constellationtheatre.org.
Time Is On Our Side runs through Aug. 28 at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets are $16-$32. Visit www.perispheretheater.com.
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