My Own Private Times Square

Once upon a time, in a Big Apple on the verge of Disney-fication by Rudy Giuliani, Times Square was a sometimes seedy neighborhood where pre-Internet gay hustlers earned their rent the old-fashioned way, by selling sex in sleazy peep-show booths. In the early 1990s, when he wrote Trafficking in Broken Hearts -- which opened last week at Sol Theatre Project -- playwright Edwin Sanchez was offering a slice of that particular aspect of the New York City he observed around him. Which he did very well. But Sanchez may not have fully predicted how his play could also become an archeological peep show into a sordid sexual-geographic crossroads that is, you know, just so last century.

In Sanchez's play, one of the three men who meet at that crossroads is a gregarious Puerto Rican hustler named Papo (Angel Perez), who grabs his crotch and plies his trade on bustling 42nd Street corners. Papo, like midtown Manhattan, is at his own crossroads. He isn't getting any younger, nor is one of his johns, Brian (Dominick Giombetti), a closeted, sexually frustrated lawyer. Into the scene walks disturbed man-boy Bobby (Ross Pivec), fresh off the bus from dysfunctional Anytown, USA, who only wants to find love and protection. Like a newly hatched swan among the ducks, Bobby ("Call me Baby," he pleads) imprints Papo as his new father, brother, and husband all rolled into one.

While Bobby fantasizes about suburban bliss in Papo's arms ("You'll take the 8:15 into the city," he says, quoting the Manhattan Transfer), Papo gets his first taste of a possible pension by escorting Brian to expensive restaurants that use actual tablecloths. But Brian, frustrated with dead-end credit-card phone sex, at first just wants to get laid while also ensuring that his law firm colleagues don't sniff him out of the closet. While headstrong Papo becomes the center of Bobby's world, he's also trading up to make Brian the center of his.

All three want happy endings. But let's face it: When it comes to plays or movies about hustlers, the foregone conclusion is that, in the end, things are going to end very, very badly for at least one of them, if not all. That much you can predict from the beginning of Trafficking in Broken Hearts, just as you would predict while watching such classics of the hustler genre as Midnight Cowboy, Six Degrees of Separation, and My Own Private Idaho.

At times, Trafficking feels like an instructional hell house put on by your local high school's gay-straight student alliance. (Message? Run away to New York City and this will happen to you too!) Along the path to its grim conclusion, though, Sanchez deploys a sympathetically complex view of these lonely people. And in Sol Theatre's production, the actors step up with confidence to take on the difficult roles of their often-abusive pink love triangle. By difficult, I don't mean that the actors have it rough as a result of the play's nudity or the realism of the staged sex -- after all, considering Trafficking's target post-Stonewall audience, its playbill warning of nudity is just good marketing -- but because of the raw emotional exhibitionism required of them as they display the desperate hunger seething beneath the sex.

Thankfully, Perez, Giombetti, and Pivec are up to the challenge; Perez especially explodes as jaded but finally warm Papo. The same is true of director Robert Hooker, who has harnessed scary desires to teach that the most revealing nudity isn't dropping trou but dropping guard to reveal the madness that's fueled by longing. The result is a complex food-chain hunt for acceptance, probably more intricate than you expected before you sat down, revealing itself as a bruising gauntlet that might actually make you squirm in your seat and question what exactly fuels your own relationships.

All three characters want so fiercely to make true their fantasies -- Papo for retirement, Brian for affection, and Bobby for a nut-job re-creation of the sexually abusive family he escaped -- that they'll do anything to get them. But when it comes to true love, are they really falling for each other or just hustling themselves to believe their fragile relationships will actually last?

The Sol Theatre is a well-equipped venue for Trafficking. It already has the feel of a Hell's Kitchen walkup, with the audience sitting on beat-up couches and rows of mismatched chairs as they peer into the stage's tiny flophouse bedroom. Marc Scott's economical use of sound and music re-creates the streets and subway platforms of New York with the smart use of roaring traffic and express train sounds.

Overall? I give the play four out of five possible, um, call 'em "Daves," based on a complex algorithm that factors in the brave performances and a risky choice of play. As far as who will attend Trafficking, though, let's be honest. You're not going to see this play unless you're an out gay man or a woman who likes out gay men. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Even though the play's statements about love are universal (aren't they always?), if there's anything bankable in this world, it's that straight guys don't drop 20 bucks on a Friday night to watch plays about gay male prostitutes. If I'm wrong -- and it would give me great pleasure to be wrong -- let me know.

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Dave Amber