“Mr. Universe” is Jim Grimsley’s dark comedy about the nature of love, beauty and loneliness. A mysterious muscleman drops out of nowhere and gets caught in the vicious net of a pair of New Orleans drag queens. A nameless object of power and desire, this chiseled faun becomes the epicenter of a night of mythic lust and passion that will either save or destroy the characters of Grimsley’s hypnotic and erotic underworld.
Now in its third 7 Stages production since 1987, “Mr. Universe” finds Grimsley, an Atlanta playwright and novelist who teaches at Emory University, perched on the shoulders of Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. The show runs through June 19.
The silent Muscle Man (Brian Kirchner) is a beautiful, narcissistic freak with the barbed-wire impulse of O’Connor’s Hazel Motes. Ministering angel Vick (Doyle Reynolds) is a yearning mother hen not unlike McCullers’ John Singer. Judy (Don Finney) is a lonely, scheming, drug-dealing drag queen who might have been dreamed up by the young John Waters or Orson Welles. Katy Jume (Tara Ochs) is the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold and a very trashy mouth. Juel Laurie (Yvonne Singh) reads like a precursor to one of August Wilson’s noble clowns, or that great playwright’s ancient Aunt Ester.
“Mr. Universe” is not a perfect play, but it is haunting and enigmatic — a rich, simmering stew that is as poignant as it is pungent. Too bad, then, that director Del Hamilton’s flat, uneven production never finds the music or exploits the potential of the material.
Rather than drawing a narrow bead, designer Faye Allen’s set scatters the action from one corner of the stage to the other. While you kind of admire the dour, listless, real-time feeling of the pacing, the show lacks energy, never finds a tone and relies on Syl Spann’s tentative saxophone playing to set a mood. Some evocative snippets of incidental music might help, but there’s nary a sound designer in sight.
As sweet as Doyle Reynolds’ Vick may be, there’s a one-note quality to the character that seems a bit unformed at first, then relies too much on sentimentality. On the other hand, without speaking a word, Kirchner’s Muscle Man summons oceans of fear, terror and manipulation. We are never quite sure of this cunning character’s motives, but we have reason to doubt his sincerity. Though Ochs is hysterical and Singh is touching, too often we feel that this is a ship without a captain.
And yet the slow voyage does have its payoffs.
Finney, Atlanta’s own Charles Busch and Divine rolled into one, is in astonishing form here, a hissing and degenerate camp spectacle with the vim of an old Hollywood back-stabber. Alone in her boudoir, among her Judy Garland posters and wigs, Judy’s turn on the phone with the police, followed by her surreptitious drug use, is a master class in calibration — over the top, then understated.
“Mr. Universe” has a place in Atlanta theatrical history alongside the work of Pearl Cleage, Sandra Deer and Steve Murray. While the city’s mainstream theaters were playing it safe in the 1980s, theaters like 7 Stages and Actor’s Express pushed boundaries and buttons. But for a play that oozes atmosphere and mystery, this production sure feels static and bland. Without Finney, there wouldn’t be much reason to recommend it.