‘Bathhouse.PPTX’ ignites Off-Off Broadway with artistry and heart

Yonatan Gebeyehu and Manuel C. Alcazar in "Bathhouse.PPTX."
Yonatan Gebeyehu and Manuel C. Alcazar in “Bathhouse.PPTX.”
Julieta Cervantes

The amazing and fascinating play “Bathhouse.PPTX,” now at the Flea, is a thrilling example of some of the creativity that is starting to emerge Off-Off Broadway. In so many ways, this body of new work captures the essence of the early days of Off-Off when bold writers played with form, narrative, and subject matter to challenge convention, find new means of expression, and bring a transformative power to theater. It is truly exciting for audiences who are being provoked, challenged, and moved.

In this case, playwright Jesús I. Valles has imagined a future where a 10th-grade student has created a PowerPoint presentation (hence the .PPTX suffix on the play’s title) for his honors project about the history of the bathhouse and its role in gay culture. The play is set in 2034, long past the era of the gay bathhouse, and the student, listed only as The Presenter, presents his project…sort of. Despite his attempts, the presentation goes off the rails, and the meta irony of the whole piece is that while PowerPoint is designed to provide structure and logical progression, the subject matter cannot be easily condensed onto slides. Thus, the presentation is constantly interrupted by other characters, scenes, and ultimately The Presenter’s struggle to understand himself as a young, gay man in the context of his present experience. It is also a trenchant satire of some progressive thinking and practices that can be both shallow and alienating. When everything is accepted, and all feelings are equal, where is the compass to guide our thoughts and hearts? No wonder The Presenter is trying to locate his identity and feelings in a bygone world that, for all its demi-mondaine characteristics, was a defined environment.

Valles fearlessly wades into the searching and confusion of the characters and the situation. At times antic, at times heartfelt; at the center of the play is the characters’ longing for intimacy and connection. What is a queer identity? How is it expressed? How do we find community? The questions tumble as quickly as some of the scenes, and the seemingly chaotic, almost Dadaistic structure of the piece eschews traditional dramatic structure to create powerful feelings, and, like the original Dadaists, an inescapable political statement about queer culture. 

The company, under the expert direction of Chay Yew, is one of the boldest you’ll see anywhere. With the exception of Sam Gonzalez, who gives a stirring and affecting performance as The Presenter, the actors all play a variety of parts. Claudia Acosta is a bathhouse chanteuse, a janitor, and a classmate, to name just a few, and she gives each a depth and specificity that is consistently remarkable. Esteban Andres Cruz handles the comic roles with skill and precision, and the rest of the company — Yonatan Gebeyehu, Manuel C. Alcazar, and Gilbert D. Sanchez play the other characters — all are outstanding and clearly committed to the work. Gebeyehu and Alcazar, in particular, have one scene in the bathhouse that is astonishing for the courage with which they approach the physical intimacy while exposing the hearts of two strangers meeting in a dark room, ostensibly for one purpose but finding that notwithstanding, as men, they cannot be reduced to a mere orgasm. The post-coital sadness and the impermanence of an anonymous connection is palpable — and richly dramatic. It’s doubtful that what might have been a common experience, whether or not it was acknowledged, in the heyday of the bathhouse has ever been more poignantly expressed onstage…and certainly not with such courage and insight.

You-Shin Chen has created a versatile set that also functions as a backdrop for Nicholas Hussong’s outstanding projections; the titular PowerPoint is just the jumping off point. (Pun intended.) Reza Behjat’s sensitive lighting creates a sense of place and mood that is always evocative, whether in the school (which was once the location of the North Hollywood Baths) or the dim halls of the bathhouse.

“Who are we?” “Who were we?” These were the questions asked by playwrights of the mid-20th century, including Tom Eyen, Robert Patrick, Terrence McNally, and so many others. Much of what they wrote was in response to a culture that rejected them or politics that were simply absurd. That Valles has picked up their torch and asks those still-relevant questions while creating something stunningly original and reflecting the struggle for queer identity in a confusing world is, simply, thrilling. 

“Bathhouse.PPTX” | The Flea Theater | 20 Thomas Street | Mon, Thurs 7 p.m.; Fri, Sat 8 pm.; Sun 3 p.m. through April 22 | $20 & $35 at Ovation Tix |1 hour, 50 mins, no intermission