Love, Lust, and Loneliness in BATHHOUSE.PPTX — Review


Gilbert Diego Sanchez and Claudia Acosta | Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Juan A. Ramirez
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April 2, 2024 4:15 PM

A note from playwright Jesús I. Valles in the script for their play Bathhouse.pptx reads: “This play is a group project for perverts. Go for it. Poppers are strongly encouraged.” The winner of a Jeremy O. Harris-judged Yale Drama Series Prize, its premiere at The Flea is too melancholy to call for the drug, but provides a fulfilling Rush of authenticity. Valles, one has to assume, writes from personal experience – the best, if not only, way to portray the truth of marginalized cultures — and, with zero pandering, Chay Yew directs a production that sensitively captures the love, lust, curiosity, and loneliness of its namesake.

“Show(er) and Tell” is the title an unnamed member of the Class of 2036 (Sam Gonzalez) has chosen for his 10th grade Honors presentation, though its cheekiness is betrayed by his appealing nervousness and the bleakness of its content. His queer history of cleanliness is tragicomically derailed by inept classmates and a representative (Esteban Andres Cruz) from various government agencies — among them the CDC, at this point the Christian Defense Coalition, and PrEP manufacturer Gilead — who interject whenever “any disease post-’82” is mentioned.

The presenter attempts to trace the sociocultural contexts behind bathing, starting with the idealism of the Roman baths (“when everybody got real gay”) through the sinister turn of the private showers of the Regency era. Requiring servants, these escalated cleanliness into a culture of “pleasure and exclusion,” and when the all-white classroom set (by You-Shin Chen) is flexed into a North Hollywood bathhouse for the latter half of the play, which adopts a more narrative form, such distinctions follow its imagined attendees as they navigate their sexed-up environs.

Yonatan Gebeyehu and Manuel C. Alcazar | Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Through language both precise, poignant and funny — there are loads of clever double entendres – Valles tastefully and rigorously examines the premium we place on physical purity, along the way evoking the real and emotional politics of gloryholes, fisting, and douching. It’s a play by and about perverts that touches on wider social illnesses, illuminating historical horrors like the gasoline baths set up in early-1900s border towns while entertaining queer realities as rich as disco, HIV, Googie Gomez, and the tongue pops with which each slide transition is punctuated (John Gasper did the sound design). Those details steam up like evaporating reveries, echoing the presenter’s unease about the impermanence of queer cultures gone unrecorded, as bathhouses nationwide shut down due to defamation and disease.

Valles’ research is as compelling as their fiction, and Gonzalez is a dream of a host; alternately funny and heartbreaking, with a voice that carries clarity and character. His excellent surrounding ensemble, doubling as both students and bathhouse denizens, includes Yonatan Gebeyeh, Manuel C. Alcazar, Gilbert D. Sanchez, and a standout Claudia Acosta as a put-upon cleaner whose invisible labor resonates beyond the steam room walls.

Comic flourishes mixed into its more somber emotional beats create a fresh atmosphere that’s neither polished nor sudsy, and this memorable play serves the euphoria, dizziness, and chemical anxiety of a depleting bottle of amyl.

Bathhouse.pptx is in performance through April 22, 2024 at The Flea Theatre on WThomas Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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