Victor Bumbalo's bumpy new drama benefits from a strong cast.
The place is Manhattan, the time post-9/11. A sense of malaise has already set in and people have lost sight of the bond forged by those apocalyptical events; things are back to normal, and not in positive ways. Before the curtain has risen, a young man has baited our gay hero, Paul (Michael Hagerty), taunting him and throwing the first punch. In a rage, Paul fought back and left his attacker dead in an alley. This event, occurring moments before we enter the story, will affect the lives of each of the fragile characters in Questa.
Paul has led seven people into his tragedy, beginning with his sister Susan (Alexandra Lydon). Pregnant with her first child, Susan seems unprepared to mother anyone but her lost brother. Paul has been a basket case since the death of his lover, Kevin; the murder of his attacker has come after months of his already scraping rock bottom. Susan babies Paul, which irks her husband, Nicholas (Tom O'Keefe). In another apartment, a woman named Lori clings to her priest in agony; Lori (Wendie Malick of TV's Just Shoot Me) has just lost her son, the gay-basher who has been killed. She has been having an affair with the priest (Dan Lauria, The Wonder Years) and is convinced that God has punished her for this. The final major player in the drama is Daniel (Dorian Harewood, Roots: The Next Generation), a witness to the crime who becomes the wild card. A homeless man obsessed with Paul, his unpredictability underpins the tension. These distraught people become both pawns and instigators of their own fates as they attempt to atone for their sins.
Questa is constructed with an episodic television sensibility; all of the cast members gained fame on the small screen, and executive producer David Milch, director Joe Cacaci, and writer Victor Bumbalo have created such powerful TV dramas as NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues. The first act is especially precarious: The script focuses on seven complex characters that would benefit from 22 episodes' worth of exploration but are only sketched here in short, choppy scenes. In Act I, director Cacaci ends each scene with a long blackout, during which we hear original music by Steve Goodie that eventually becomes repetitive. In Act II, the scenes are given more time to develop and there are fewer distracting blackouts. As a result, the drama gains time to breathe.
Questa contains some apt observations about loneliness, homophobia, betrayal, and guilt. As the characters unravel, they cling to anything -- lies, fantasies, etc. -- that keeps them from drowning. Bumbalo's dialogue is on the mark as he skewers our prejudices and foibles, such as ageism in the gay community ("It's not that you're invisible; they resent you for taking up space") and dating in the new millennium ("The Internet's one big take-out menu.") These damaged people represent the community at large; they are not just a fringe group. Part of what gives Questa its strong sense of place is Evan Bartoletti's vivid scenic design, which displays remarkable perspective on row housing and shorefront high-rises.
The performances are raw. Malick, a master at comic quips, here has no punch lines to cling to; she is nakedly vulnerable as Lori accepts her culpability in her son's death. Hagerty's Paul is a man possessed, exuding manic edginess with his intense eyes and breathy voice. (It seems as if it takes all his energy to push out the words.) Paul is a Bermuda triangle; people gravitate to him despite the danger and become sucked in. It's a feat to make such a character likeable, yet Hagerty does so. Harewood acts as the play's Greek chorus; sad, lonely, and menacing, his vagrant holds our hero's life in his hands. When Daniel gives a desolate speech about his family life and his years spent without any sort of nurturing physical contact, it's heart-wrenching.