Austin Lysy and Peter Macdissi in All That I Will Ever Be
(© Joan Marcus)
Austin Lysy and Peter Macdissi in All That I Will Ever Be
(© Joan Marcus)
While he may be best known for his Hollywood successes such as American Beauty and Six Feet Under, Alan Ball started out as a playwright. His return to the theater after an extended absence is cause for celebration -- particularly when it's with a play as brilliant as All That I Will Ever Be, now at New York Theatre Workshop. This thought-provoking and edgy new work looks at the way people fashion their identities -- for themselves and others -- and how it both enables and prevents intimacy.

The play centers on Omar (Peter Macdissi), a male hustler -- and part-time salesman -- who looks vaguely Middle Eastern, especially when he's identifying himself as Farouk, the Arabian Stallion. Sometimes, though, he's Greek God Demetrius or Carlito, the Latin Lover. Omar's main personality trait is that he tells different stories to different people, making it difficult to separate the lies from the truths.

It's as Farouk that he meets Dwight (Austin Lysy), and the pair soon form a relationship that is based as much on the different traumas that have defined both of their lives as it is on their physical attraction for one another. Dwight is a wounded soul, still hurting from the long-ago suicide of his mother and perpetually angry at his wealthy father Phil (Victor Slezak). Yet, even as Dwight and Omar draw closer, Omar's past continues to be shrouded in doubt, causing the audience, as well as some of the play's characters, to wonder if he's dangerous, unstable, or maybe even a terrorist.

Ball walks a fine line, both utilizing and subverting stereotypes to build dramatic tension. In addition, he provides wry commentary on a variety of subjects, including race relations, Hollywood movies, and sexual diversity. Furthermore, the playwright's dialogue positively crackles; he's got some great one-liners, as well as more sustained conversations that are intelligent and witty.

Macdissi has a brooding sensuality that is perfect for the role of Omar. He has a strong stage presence, particularly in his more sinister-seeming moments. Unfortunately, in two crucial scenes where he should appear at his most sincere, his teary emotions play falsely. This throws doubt on whether or not Omar is being truthful, but in a manner that seems to go against the playwright's intentions.

Lysy, on the other hand, is absolute perfection. He completely inhabits the awkward, emotionally vulnerable and insecure Dwight. The character's low self-esteem is balanced by a charming boyishness, and the actor has a quirky manner of speech that is utterly disarming.

The supporting cast is also top-notch. Patch Darragh offers distinct and believable portrayals of four different characters, from a saucy waiter to a client of Omar's who doesn't get what he expects. Kandiss Emundson excels as Cynthia, Omar's girlfriend, and is also compelling as Beth, a friend of Dwight's. Slezak is terrific as Dwight's father, although his quick change to Chuck, Cynthia's gay boss, may be momentarily confusing to some in the audience. David Margulies as Raymond, another of Omar's clients, makes a marvelous impression in his one extended and truly devastating scene.

Director Jo Bonney has done a stellar job bringing out both the play's humor and its darker undercurrents. Neil Patel's set design uses a number of sliding units to suggest or at times wholly create different environments, and Emilio Sosa's costumes, David Lander's lighting, and Darron L. West's sound design all make vital contributions.

But first and foremost is the play itself, which is one of the best scripts I've had the pleasure of seeing performed in quite some time.