By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

I suppose New Orleans is the perfect setting for “Mr. Universe,” Jim Grimsley’s 1987 play, here directed by Del Hamilton at  7 Stages, running through June 19.  New Orleans can be a city of last chances, excelling in self-deception, where appearance and reality collide and sometimes mock each other.

Are you confused?  Good—because much of “Mr. Universe” is a puzzlement, where disappointment and loneliness are familiar bedfellows.  Two drag queens, Judy (Don Finney) and Vick (Doyle Reynolds), discover a mute, half-naked muscleman (Brian Kirchner) on the sidewalk in the wee small hours of the French Quarter morning.  The answer to their prayers?  Not quite—this guy has blood on him (is it real?) and can provide no clue about his situation.

Vick and Judy take him in (it’s Vick’s home, actually) to minister to his wounds.  At least this is Vick’s intention; the sharp-tongued Judy’s motives are more muddled. There we meet Katy (Tara Ochs), something of a shady lady who’s hiding out at Vick’s; a neighbor named Juel Laurie (Yvonne Singh), full of mystery and mirth; a sax player (Syl Spann); and a Police Woman (S. Nicole Boroski).

The acting is uniformly fine:  Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Finney have been down this road before, and they deliver expert performances.  Ms. Ochs matches them; her Katy is smooth, deadly, and still empathetic (not an easy combination to pull off).  Ms. Singh is absolutely spot-on as a senile, colorful, doddering character indigenous to the Quarter.  Mr. Kirchner, our hunk of the evening, projects vulnerability very well; and he will gladly be your fantasy—because that’s what he’s here for.

The larger question is what’s “Mr. Universe” here for?  Oh yes, lots of symbolism here; but you must fill in your own blanks.  Unfortunately, an unwelcome homeostasis sets in early on and never really departs.  An example is the Sax Player who sets the mood for us at the beginning by playing; and playing; and playing.  I started looking for Blanche DuBois to saunter in; she would have been a breath of fresh air.

The excellent actors mentioned cannot overcome it, and they don’t get much help or pizzazz from Mr. Hamilton.  The play, though interesting and eccentric, is not very dramatically riveting, though it certainly creates its own quaint ambience; and the characters are quite fascinating to hang out with.

For more information, visit www.7stages.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.