Broadway remembers James Kirkwood as the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning co-author of “A Chorus Line,” once the longest-running show in the history of the Great White Way. (It was still going when Kirkwood died at 64 in 1989.)
But eight days before “Chorus Line” made its debut at the Public Theater in 1975, an oddity titled “P.S. Your Cat is Dead!” opened on Broadway under Kirkwood’s name alone. It was the opposite of the beloved musical: a story of failure rather than success, an openly gay comedy instead of a drama in a largely heterosexual world, a claustrophobic play set in a small apartment rather than a sprawling show with two dozen dancers on an empty stage (which is, metaphorically, the whole world).
It closed after two weeks. Yet small troupes have continually revived it since, and you can see why in Queen City Theatre Company’s season-opening show at Duke Energy Theater.
One reason is economics: You need just four actors – only two of those in major roles – plus relatively simple lighting and one set that can be as elaborate or sparse as you choose. (Designers Kristian Wedolowski and Tim Baxter-Ferguson have given us a studio apartment that’s fully furnished without being cluttered.)
Another is that the play remains timely in an era when LGBTQ issues still dominate public discussions and questions of gender identity persist. At the start of the show, actor Jimmy Zoole (Joe Rux) is a straight man – or one who thinks he is – breaking up with his lover, Kate (Iesha Nyree). By the end, he has formed an unusual bond with Vito Antonucci (Berry Newkirk), a bisexual hustler who might take the edge off Jimmy’s pain.
The play, which I saw Wednesday night at a final dress rehearsal, seems autobiographical. Like Kirkwood, Jimmy is an intermittently busy actor who has made a few appearances on Broadway and has just tried his hand at a novel. He has been robbed twice already, as Kirkwood was, and is now at his lowest point: He has been fired from a stage show, written out of a soap opera, is losing Kate and has lost his book, which disappeared in the second burglary. (And yes, his cat has just died.)
If comedy is tragedy plus time, as drama teachers say, it’s also tragedy intensified to absurdity. So we’re already smiling with (or at) Jimmy when he subdues Vito, who has broken into his apartment yet again.
Jimmy ties Vito to his kitchen table and taunts him, having no idea what to do next. As Vito reveals his vulnerability – and then reveals some potent dope, which they smoke together – the dynamics change for both men.
Director Glenn T. Griffin doesn’t neglect the comedy but treats the show as a blossoming love story. Neither he nor the actors can fix Kirkwood’s one misstep: When Kate comes back to the apartment with a new, straight-arrow boyfriend (Dan Grogan), they hang around unconvincingly, so Jimmy and Vito can bond further by abusing them. Once they leave, the story moves toward its unexpectedly touching ending.
I don’t know any Charlotte actor who plays frantic anxiety better than Rux; he starts out in that vein here but moves on to deeper emotional waters, where he’s equally at home. This is the best work I have seen from Newkirk: Fear morphs into false cockiness and then into blunt self-revelation, and this low-life intruder wins not only Jimmy’s affection but ours.