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Uncle Bob

Gale Harold and George Morfogen in Uncle Bob
(Photo: Yasuyuki Takagi)
Austin Pendleton's Uncle Bob has to be one of the most difficult, most macabre plays of the season. Originally produced by The Mint Theater in 1995 and now running at the SoHo Playhouse, this is a wordy, often startling work that examines the ramifications of AIDS as the title character comes face to face with the ugliness of homophobia in the person of his nephew Josh, a hot-headed, redneck stud.

Bob's wife Sally has left their Greenwich Village home after a long marriage, during which Bob contracted AIDS though his relationships with men. Josh has recently totaled his Porsche and hitchhiked from parts west to spend some time with his dying uncle. The first act opens with a good, long monologue that Bob delivers into the tape recorder Sally has given him to express his feelings about his impending doom. As Bob pontificates on his plight, the apartment door swings open and Josh swaggers in, hell-bent on getting a rise out of his uncle. Spewing profanities, Josh degrades Bob for his unprintable sex acts. Bob wallows in all of this, letting Josh spew, and one soon begins to wonder if Uncle Bob is really a play about Nephew Josh.

Pendleton has an authentic theatrical voice, and his witty, raw dialogue is simultaneously funny and unsettling. After one of Josh's most profane blasts, Bob says, "So this is a visit of compassion?" Careening around Matt Corsover's drab apartment setting, Gale Harold's Josh is a bucking bronco, though it should be said that so much movement tends to take focus from some fine dialogue. It's the verbal exchanges between the two characters that are the true acts of violence here; Pendelton's words hit with the force of bullets.

As Bob, George Morfogen is perfect. Pendleton wrote the play specifically for the veteran actor, who won the coveted Drama-Logue Award in Los Angeles for his performance in a production there. He wears the role like a calfskin glove; he is both hero and anti-hero rolled into one suffering man. Morfogen even makes the perusal of a D'Agostino's receipt exciting. And when Harold all but brutalizes him in a well-staged fight, you sense the genuine urgency of the moment.

Though Uncle Bob is built around two tough, original characters who are impossible to pin down and whose moves cannot be anticipated, the play does have its melodramatic moments. When it reaches its climax (or, rather, anti-climax) with a shocking confession from Josh and a bizarre deal involving the exchange of sex for an ounce of compassion, Uncle Bob almost derails into absurdity. Director Courtney Moorehead does her part to keep things going and she has ingeniously used every square inch of the tiny Soho Playhouse stage, including a kitchen window that looks into the living room and gives a nice depth to the playing area.

The bottom line: Pendleton fans will enjoy this wordy play. Morfogen fans (particularly those who love his work as Bob Rebadow in the HBO series Oz) will be pleased to see him give such a fine stage performance. And, last but by no means least, devotees of the Showtime TV hit Queer as Folk will find that Gale Harold has made an auspicious New York theatrical debut--and kept his clothes on, to boot!