"I gotta leave New York City…this city bringin' me down," raps Thorn, one of the two protagonists in C. Julian Jiménez's fabulous, fascinating, and flawed comedy Bruise & Thorn, now receiving its world premiere with Pipeline Theatre Company at A.R.T./New York Theatres. Indeed, a lot of New Yorkers have felt that need to escape recently — people who work at nicer places than a laundromat on Jamaica Avenue.
That's where Thorn (Jae W. Brown) struggles to make rent money with her cousin Bruise (Fernando Contreras), washing and folding for Mrs. Gallo (Zuleyma Guevara, effortlessly embodying the Boricua Miranda Priestly). Neither of them accepts this status quo: Bruise wants to attend culinary school and become a chef, and Thorn is an amateur rapper who dreams of winning America's Got Talent with the help of her no-good boyfriend, Lizard (Carson Fox Harvey). But as is often the case in America, the gap between desire and necessity is wide — and Bruise does what must be done to earn a living. That means assisting Mrs. Gallo with her lucrative underground cockfighting ring, as well as performing some other unsavory tasks.
Jiménez's outsize theatrical imagination (and dramaturgical messiness) is encapsulated by the remaining cast list: Kevin/a Taylor, Jason Ford, Ashton Muñiz, and Sijean González play dancing gamecocks; Billy Nugent portrays a runaway cow; and an underutilized Lou Liberatore plays a (possibly?) homeless man given the character name "Old Fart." Under the energetic direction of Jesse Jou, everyone in the ensemble delivers committed performances in an atmosphere of controlled insanity.
Sacha Schwartz's neon laundromat fantasy of a set provides a multicolored backdrop for this wild story, further intensified by Harbour Edney's club lighting, Matt Otto's playful sound design, and Cesar Valentino's athletic choreography.
The production benefits greatly from the performances of the two leads: Brown exhibits cultivated flow as a rapper while also conveying the mascaraed pain of a trans teenager who is still figuring their shit out: "When Ima boy Ima boy. When Ima girl, Ima girl. Don't worry, Ima tell you when which is which," Thorn tells a confused and skeptical Bruise. Yet the boyfriend requires no instruction: "You need to be a boy," Lizard tells Thorn with more than a hint of menace — and Thorn seems to accept this, perhaps in the face of limited options.
As Bruise, Contreras captures the multitudinous contradictions of being young, poor, and fierce in New York City: Outfitted in silver leggings and painted to perfection (excellent costumes by Saawan Tiwari), he exudes a butch femininity that feels singular and completely organic. He is at once free in himself, yet in thrall to an economic system that requires him to compromise daily — especially during a very revealing scene with Mrs. Gallo.
Jiménez has never lacked creative ambition and is going after something important and rare with Bruise & Thorn: a depiction of queer life that does doesn't fall back on fussy manners, but looks forward to total liberation, in which who we fuck doesn't define us politically and gender identity is as dynamic as each individual. Jiménez also gets within striking distance of saying something profound about the breakdown of trust in the employer-employee relationship (depicted with such rigor in Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew), but frustratingly abandons that catch for much smaller fish.
While it seems to be building up to something big, Bruise & Thorn descends into a confusing pageant of vogueing and other queer tropes as the already porous border between fantasy and reality breaks down completely. While I admire Jiménez's commitment to showmanship and frivolity in a theater scene increasingly dominating by dry academic fare, he is slyly letting audiences off the hook: The playwright opens our eyes to the lives of characters rarely depicted on a New York stage, and then throws a glitter bomb in our faces, obscuring our vision. The takeaway for many viewers will likely feel like the hangover following a bachelorette pub crawl through the West Village: You may not understand everything you saw, but you had a good time. For some theatergoers, that will be enough — but I know that this writer can do more.