Eduardo Machado makes a risible claim in the title of his newest play. As anyone who has ever encountered an onstage memoir might have guessed, Not About Me is all about him — his marriage, his affairs, his career, and the friends he left to choke on his dust as a motored down the road to the American dream. Now making its world premiere at Theater for the New City, Not about Me is never boring thanks in large part to the extravagant performance of its leading man, Mateo d'Amato. It is also revealing of the author's lack of humility and remorse — two qualities that would not have been useful in obtaining the life that he desired.
Like all the greatest Americans, Machado is an immigrant, having left Cuba at the age of 8 as part of Operation Pedro Pan. Not About Me opens two decades later, in the hedonistic New York City of the early 1980s. Bathed in the waning glow of Disco, Eduardo (d'Amato) and his friends Frank (Ellis Charles Hoffmeister), Tommy (Charles Manning), and Paul (Drew Valins) hit the dance floor in search of men. This is despite the fact that Eduardo has a much older wife in California. "Homosexuality is only something I do in the dark, in secret," Eduardo explains in a direct address to the audience. "That's the deal we have. My sexy wife and I."
At the same time, Eduardo lusts after Donna (Heather Velazquez), an actress in one of his plays. He toys with the sexual advances of Gerald (Michael Domitrovich), a handsome director who may want to helm his next play. While his openly gay friends toil as waiters, Eduardo's career is taking off. This is partly due to his wife's connections and the financial stability she offers, but it has more to do with Eduardo's manic charisma, in which he incautiously takes what he wants and the universe rewards him for it. It's the kind of charmed existence that is bound to breed resentment as idealistic twentysomethings fade to cynical thirty- and fortysomethings — should Eduardo's friends even make it that far.
The specter of AIDS hovers over the stage, creeping into the dialogue as a rumor. "Are you sure they are not just trying to scare us? Control us," Frank asks, echoing sentiments that many Americans had (and still have) about Covid. Readers can guess how this attitude pans out, although it's no spoiler to say that this is yet another area to which Eduardo's dumb luck extends.
Unfortunately, that providence seems to have run out when it comes to crafting a focused script. For a playwright of only middling renown, Machado (who also directs) assumes too much foreknowledge on the part of the audience, skipping through years and events in ways that may leave some viewers baffled. A Tuesdays With Morrie side plot featuring an older actress dying of cancer fizzles despite a moving performance by Sharon Ullrick. And while Kelsey Charter's mildly outrageous costumes come the closest to providing a timeline, the generally austere design (sets by Mark Marcante, lighting by Alex Bartenieff, sound by David Margolin Lawson) does little to illuminate the significant changes that took place over the last four decades for the characters and the city in which they lived.
By contrast, Not About Me is greatly enhanced by Mateo d'Amato's memorable portrayal of Eduardo. Gesticulating wildly and rolling his eyes into the back of his head as he takes a drag of a cigarette, he's like a Hollywood leading lady from the era of Bette Davis and Anne Baxter — always conscious of some invisible camera that is surely pointed at him. In another moment, he shouts, "Change the theatre it needs it," his fist raised in the fashionable manner of those Brechtians who brunch. It's a revealingly calculated performance, telling the story of a man who can sweep others up in his own myth with a dazzling wave of his hands. This is the kind of charisma that can be transformative or deadly in the hands of politicians, cult leaders, and teachers (Machado is a professor of playwriting at NYU). Eduardo is by no means likable, but one cannot help but admire the chutzpah.
Far more sympathetic is Tommy, whom Manning endows with a saintly glow. In many ways, he was Eduardo's guardian angel through the worst of AIDS, and in one of the play's more dramatic scenes, he stands between a gunman and his intended victim, diffusing the situation like a real Marvel superhero. Manning's performance only turns to bitterness in his final scene, when he meets Eduardo in an East Village restaurant several years after the main events of the story and it becomes clear that they can never be friends again.
One might interpret Not About Me as an elaborate bid for reconciliation. "Tommy, if you're in the audience tonight, I am waiting for you in the lobby with open arms," Eduardo says in his final monologue. I suspect the plea is in vain, another attempt to have it all. Such shattered friendships may very well be the price of success in America. Who among us would honestly refuse to pay?