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East 14th

Don Reed's entertaining autobiographical solo show about his unusual childhood is superbly performed.

Don Reed in East 14th
(© Aaron Epstein)
Not since John Leguizamo morphed from character to character in his now-famous early solo shows about his youth has there been an actor quite as accomplished in such theatrical daring-do as Don Reed, whose autobiographical solo show, East 14th, is now at New World Stages. If Reed's show doesn't have the same sense of explosive freshness that Leguizamo first displayed, nor is the writing quite as dynamic, there is no doubt that his multi-talented abilities as an actor, comedian, dancer, and storyteller are very much in evidence here.

Reed -- who also directed the piece -- has shaped his unusual childhood into an entertaining show, built on the extremes of having two fathers: one a strict Jehovah's Witness and the other a flamboyant and successful pimp. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite know how to get the show started, choosing to begin with a somewhat lame audience participation bit that is intended to loosen up the paying customers.

Once that's over, the show quickly takes off as he describes the emotionally confusing time when his parents broke up and his mother remarried a devout Jehovah's Witness. The comedy spikes early and often when his step-dad insists on taking young Don with him to knock on his neighbors' doors at 7am. Not only we do literally see young Don, known by his nickname of Blinkie because he constantly bats his eyes, but we also meet a growing cast of characters -- one that increases by leaps and bounds as Don escapes from the house on one end of East 14th Street where his mother and stepfather live to the house on the other end of the street where his real father holds court.

There, we get to know Don's two older brothers, one a real ladies man, the other a fully out gay man. Both are played to great comic effect -- each giving their kid brother hilarious if questionable advice -- and both men are portrayed with respect and affection. Most importantly, though, his father saw in his youngest son the spark of something special and he nurtured that gift. And for all the rough trade that surrounded their lifestyle, the freedom of young Don's life fed his soul.

In the style of a gospel preacher, Reed has the tendency to repeat phrases over and over as he sets up a bit. Sometimes the repetition gets a laugh, sometimes not. (We suspect his main purpose is to make sure the audience knows where he's going with his material.) Luckily, whenever the show begins to lose its pace, Reed grabs it and pumps it up again, often with a bit of dance -- which he uses to excellent effect several times in the show. And the evening's coda is a real tour de force as Reed brings back all of his major characters in swift succession to announce, quite comically, how they helped him make his way in life.


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