The Pipeline Theatre Company asserts that “An unbridled imagination is a force of magic with the power to provoke a more courageous and compassionate world.” This noble credo is articulated with exuberance and charm in their latest offering, “Bruise & Thorn,” now playing at A.R.T./New York Theatres in Hell’s Kitchen.
Written by the supremely inventive C. Julian Jiménez, the piece wrestles with identity, sexuality, and gender norms, served up with a tangy Latinx flavor. The titular characters are Nuyorican cousins and roommates stuck working at a derelict laundromat in a dicey pocket of Jamaica, Queens. They’re both desperate to find a way out.
Bruise is a 22-year-old queer male who sports a short-cropped beard, a tunic-style top, and silver leggings, revealing muscular thighs. While he may be fabulously swishy at times, he has a sexual secret that breaks the standard gay template. His other secret? He’s earning his GED so he can apply to culinary school upstate. Fernando Contreras, a founding member of Pipeline, embodies the role with keen intensity and panache.
Thorn, 18, is a feisty, gender-fluid rapper who insists on dancing to their own beat. Thorn’s dream is to “spit bars” on “America’s Got Talent,” although Bruise thinks it’s impossible for a trans rapper “from the hood” to be accepted on such a mainstream TV show.
Thorn is ensnared in a toxic relationship with an accompanist boyfriend who calls himself Lizard, though his name is actually Lyle (Carson Fox Harvey infuses the brute with an unexpected vulnerability). Ironically, Thorn calls him Liz. Assigned male at birth, Thorn has begun to identify as female, much to the ire of Lizard, who insists, “You my boy.” The role of Thorn nicely showcases the talents of Jae W. Brown, who has performed in such NYC cabarets as Club Cumming, The Q, Rockbar, and Birdland.
Tension mounts when Thorn discovers that the laundromat’s owner, Mrs. Gallo (the excellent Zuleyma Guevara) is running an illicit cockfighting ring in the basement. Also stirring up trouble is a headstrong homeless man they call “Old Fart,” played with tender gravitas by veteran gay actor Lou Liberatore, who starred in the original “Burn This” on Broadway. Bruise treats Old Fart with a mix of respect and resignation, even after Mrs. Gallo bans him from the premises.
Like its characters, this bold production refuses to fit into a mold and is tricky to describe. It’s a play with music (Matt Otto did the sound design and transition music) and choreography (by Cesar Valentino), but not a musical. And much of the music is rap with beatbox. Brian and Marvin Quijada are credited as rap consultants.
Under the direction of Jesse Jou, there are bursts of magical realism, such as when the cocks being groomed for the big fight emerge as a diverse company of human dancers. Or when the climax is reimagined as a fierce, final throwdown at a vogue ball, serving “baller attitude” and “executive realness but with a queer sensibility twist.”
Jiménez’s brash script pulses with raw flavor from an underrepresented minority, voiced with authenticity from a talented ensemble. The quips from Old Fart, who becomes the vogue ball emcee, recall those of Billy Porter in the FX hit “Pose.”
“Oh, they about to throw down. They about to glisten and destroy the cistem! You know what cistem that is, baby. Destroy that gender binary, darling. Wash that stain right out of your crop top and leotard, gurl.”
The results of this ambitious endeavor are uneven. The complicated plot could use some untangling, and at times, the “unbridled imagination” cited in the troupe’s credo is overwhelming and could use some reining in. Yet on balance, “Bruise & Thorn” delivers a refreshing, potent dose of Latinx realness rarely seen onstage.
BRUISE & THORN | Pipeline Theatre Company | A.R.T./New York Theatres | 502 W. 53rd St. | Wed.-Sun. 7 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. | Through Mar. 27 | $10-$60; PipelineTheatre.org | 1 hr., 40 mins. with no intermission