In a Pizza Hut-Taco Bell combination in Jamaica, Queens, genre-fluid Thorn is working on a rap – hinged on the line “I have to leave New York” – which will hopefully lead to an escape through the through an “America’s Got Talent Victory. Because Thorn, a trans woman, is played with irresistible magnetism by nightlife artist Jae WB, it’s almost impossible not to support her.
“Bruise & Thorn,” an eccentric new play by C. Julian Jiménez currently presented by Pipeline Theater Company at ART/New York Theaters, gives the character a chance to freestyle, vogue, and charm his way into the heart of the audience.
Never mind that his cousin Bruise (a very handsome Fernando Contreras) has to hold down the fort at the laundromat where they both work while Thorn imagines its quick release. Saving up for his own culinary school aspirations, Bruise’s tender gay heart must make way for Old Fart (Lou Liberatore, very funny), the homeless man he lets rest in the laundromat toilets, and his demanding boss, Mrs. Gallo (a feisty Zuleyma Guevara), who roped him into her cockfighting racket.
On the outside is Lizard (Carson Fox Harvey), a sketchy figure who dangles her commitment to Thorn on the condition that she drop the in-between of her identity – it’s implied that she sometimes uses pronouns he / him to appease him – and live like a man. Lizard’s character isn’t as well-realized as the others, perhaps by design to keep him an enigma, but his ratty plaid boxers convey more than enough. (The costumes are by Saawan Tiwari.)
Along with well-crafted performances, “Bruise & Thorn” counts memorable authenticity among its best qualities; the work is very queer, very Latinx, very New York City. Filled with hip-hop, impromptu duckwalks and amorous shadows, Jiménez’s humor is performed with contagious enthusiasm by its two protagonists. At the start of the play, when the characters’ personalities are introduced, it’s almost impossible to believe that WB and Contreras didn’t compose the material themselves, they so naturally inhabit it.
Combining ingenuity and playfulness, the production eschews realism for gay fantasia; Sasha Schwartz’s laundromat set looks like a McDonald’s playground designed for the Teletubbies. Multi-colored splotches adorn the floors, with washers and dryers and multi-purpose cardboard boxes lending an appropriately quirky charm to the final scenes: a series of drag ball competitions depicting cockfighting (with the birds fabulously played by dancers androgynous) and a decisive dispute between the two cousins.
Once bullets are introduced, Jiménez’s play dwells even less on realism, using fantasy as a literal way to get these characters out of their situations. It may feel a bit like a narrative loophole – I’m still not sure how, exactly, some of these plot threads are resolved – but the scenes are satisfying enough to allay most concerns.
These whimsical flights are fundamental to the play’s weirdness, but Jesse Jou’s unhurried directing drains the momentum from the characters’ risky decisions. While the initial encounter scenes let the comedic cast and the cast’s charisma dictate their pacing, later tense ones are treated to too many pauses, too many teasings and hesitations, as if to telegraph gravity through passivity.
Jiménez is smart in not promising more than this lightweight game can handle when it comes to the ideas of gender, identity, and class it evokes. Despite all their dreams, “Bruise & Thorn” knows exactly how to stay awake.
Bruise and thorn
Through March 27 at the Mezzanine Theater of ART/New York Theatres, Manhattan; pipelinetheatre.org. Duration: 1h35.