“Tiny Boyfriend” opens with a nice one-liner: “Love is bizarre.” And in the Yale School of Drama’s newest experimental play, love is indeed bizarre. Love involves mini-baguettes and oversized flower pots and rubbery dildos. Love is knotted and ugly and very opaque. And love isn’t just love, but is also race, gender, faith, disease and death. In brief, “Tiny Boyfriend” is a romance that wants to be much more.
Quan and John share an office, a Kafkaesque cubicle they cannot escape. John’s a temp worker, Quan’s a full-time employee, and the attraction is immediate. They exchange long, lingering looks from either side of the room and when they speak, their sneering boss interrupts and parades around the room with a foppish gait. But Quan and John persevere, plan a date, sing karaoke and end up having hot and sweaty sex that ends abruptly when Quan mentions John’s “big black dick.” John has some insecurities. But still, they persevere. They keep going to work; they keep avoiding their boss; they keep dating. They even have a daughter, Olivia, played by the same actor who plays the boss (unclear at what point they adopted a child). Olivia’s sassy and slightly crazy: she speaks in tongues and throws hysterical fits. Quan and John struggle because love is bizarre, an appropriate parallel to the play itself.
Sara Holdren DRA ’15 and Phillip Howze seem to pick strangeness for the sake of strangeness. On his first day of work, John enters the office and begins to dance the robot. Quan microwaves a telephone. While these details amuse, they often distract, making the story hard to follow, diffuse, and unclear. When did Olivia learn Spanish? How old is she? Why’s she fixated on a rubber dildo? And what does the giant white flowerpot mean? Quan and John break the fourth wall without earning their asides. Coaxing Olivia out of a fit, they claim that “this play has rules” and that the audience expects better from her, but these attempts at meta-theater are half-hearted gimmicks. “Tiny Boyfriend” doesn’t need its postmodern flourishes.
Ultimately, Howze takes on too much for such a short production. The play spans 25 years and during the 25 years, Quan and John grapple with various capital-I Issues. Howze crams race, sex, politics, gender and faith into a single relationship and it cannot withstand the pressure. Both men are bubbling cauldrons of insecurity — new fears surface in every other exchange and the audience can’t keep up. Since Howze doesn’t allow for real character development, the central relationship doesn’t make sense. Why are these two men together? The final scenes, scenes in which John accuses Quan of perfectionism and Quan accuses John of immaturity, aren’t satisfying. They’re not a culmination; they have an unjustified intensity that only feels hollow. Howze doesn’t build a scaffold strong enough to support such emotional complexity.
But when “Tiny Boyfriend” stays tiny, when it doesn’t do too much, the play’s lovely and strange. The first sex scene is perfect: the lights dim, Quan and John stand in separate corners and remove their pants. They moan and pant in alternating intervals. John grunts, Quan sighs, John grunts. And the acting, too, is mostly great. James Cusati-Moyer DRA ‘15 — as both Olivia and the boss — is hilarious. He’s perfected a child’s sloppy movements and sheepish giggles, dramatic fits and quick recoveries. Mitchell Winter DRA ‘15 as Quan is not only endearing but heartbreaking, crying “I wish we felt it all and all at once!” And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II ‘DRA 15 is powerful and, in moments, majestic. “Tiny Boyfriend” succeeds when Howze doesn’t overreach, when he isn’t writing Relevant Theater.
But most of the time, he does overreach. Quan and John are as trapped and terrified as Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon but even this absurdist reference to “Waiting for Godot” is gratuitous and ultimately distracting. Not only is the play overladen with footnotes on race, gender and democracy, but “Tiny Boyfriend” is a swarm of surreal details. These details confuse. “Love is Bizarre,” sure, but its explication doesn’t have to be.