With the downtown theater scene disappearing in a rapid fashion, if it hasn't vanished already, Tom X. Chao is one of the persistent playwrights working to keep it alive. Callous Cad, Chao's newest play, showing at the new Dixon Place theater, makes for a refreshing evening as he conducts a quirky exploration of his unsatisfactory love.
The kind of love pushed in commercials and the movies is often something people don't experience, or only for a short while in the beginning before the realities of human relations have time to sink in. Tom X. Chao finds his subject in that discontentment that is more commonly felt and less likely to be advertised.
Chao presents a likeably dislikeable character that is charmingly awkward and geeky. He relates his feelings and thoughts about love with a blunt honesty, deflowering the romantic ideals depicted in Valentine's cards with comic levity. Chao's stage presence is unique, with some parallels to the character of W. C. Fields. He is misanthropic, flips the bird to even the idea of children, and maintains a rigid persona with bursts of playful absurdity. However, underneath that rough exterior is someone that draws you in, enticing you to want to like him. Rosalie Purvis sheds light on that inner quality, providing a well-balanced counterpart as "The Magical Being" sent by Cupid to nurse Chao in his newly sprouted relationship. Purvis, contrary to Chao, is gleefully optimistic and springs about the stage with a sprite-like freedom. The two play off of one another with an unlikely chemistry, making for a comical couple.
Chao's writing is unabashedly personal, using the direct experiences and people from his own life to fill the material of his play. His approach is happily non-linear, periodically interrupting the plot with brief, hypothetical scenarios, furnishing quick comic breaks much like an episode of Family Guy. There is an overall cartoonist's freedom to his style that celebrates the liberties the stage allows.
Director John Harlacher matches the tone of the piece perfectly with uninhibited staging that makes a fitting use of the large space. Harlacher handles the script with an even hand, carefully balancing between establishing perimeters to give the piece form and yet leaving room for it to breath. Marlon Hurt's lighting design helps Harlacher define those perimeters, containing the sporadic, pop-up scenarios in tight, distinctly colored areas while creating a wide, brighter look for the main thread of the story.
With Broadway tickets in the $100 range, you're taking a big gamble on a world of diminishing returns. For the next couple of weeks, instead of feeding the bloated beast that feeds itself, consider heading downtown and dropping $15 on Callous Cad. Your wallet and your head will thank you. - C. Jefferson Thom
Callous Cad plays Friday & Saturday nights (10pm) at Dixon Place and runs through Dec. 19th.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.