Curtain speeches are a quaint tradition at many South Florida theaters.
The artistic or managing director of the company thanks patrons and sponsors, plugs upcoming performances and, most importantly, points out the restrooms and emergency exits.
Director Michael Bush’s curtain speech at the world premiere of Michael Aman’s “Off Balance: A Comic Parable” last weekend was, expectedly, anything but quaint, an emotional introduction to the artistic labor of love to follow.
Sporting a fashionable utilikilt and fighting problems with his dentures, Bush alternately elicited laughs and tears from the audience in the intimate Empire Stage, packed with friends and fans, as he shared the story behind the occasion.
Bush met Aman while the aspiring playwright was a student in a graduate musical theater course he was teaching more than two decades ago. They became more than lovers and husbands, but collaborators artistically and in almost every other pursuit, until Aman lost a three-year battle against brain cancer earlier this year.
As the end became apparent, Aman became concerned about his legacy. He had already snagged a prestigious Carbonell Award for “Poz” years ago and a new production of his play “Coyote” in Los Angeles was set to be featured in an upcoming television series, “Opening Nights America,” and begin filming later this year.
He pulled out his un-produced “Off Balance,” making changes and updates that foreshadowed his own grapple with mortality, Bush said. Two months after Aman’s death, that work would leave Fort Lauderdale audiences with a legacy of laughter that shouldn’t be forgotten soon.
Bush chose this work as his personal tribute, not only co-producing (with Empire Stage) and directing, but throwing his abundant energy into set design and costume design. The final performance on July 25 will conclude with a celebration of life service.
Like most of Aman’s works, the plot of “Off Balance” is not easy to summarize because the quirky spoilers are so integral to the storyline:
Billy (Caleb Polsky) is a young writer restoring a farmhouse in upstate New York. He’s quirky and uptight and still pained by an ill-fated fling years ago with a beguiling young hustler, Peter (Michael Paul). Billy’s straight friend April (Brooke Hall) is an antique dealer and remains aggressively protective of her friend, especially when she learns he has invited Peter to stay with him for a while.
April is suddenly stricken with vertigo and takes temporary residence with Billy and a scantily clad Peter. April is hostile until she discovers Peter has left his sketchy lifestyle behind, eschewing prostitution, drugs and alcohol. He even took up work as a contractor, working for a wealthy older woman, Loretta (Beverly Blanchette), who makes an unexpected appearance later. And like “Poz,” Aman introduces some paranormal twists for good measure.
Thanks to Aman’s writing and Bush’s direction, the one-act, 80-minute comedy speeds along, often with the feel of a familiar sitcom. Billy and April are reminiscent of “Will & Grace” and Loretta is clearly a “Karen,” albeit with the ‘60s fashion flair of Barbara Eden a la “I Dream of Jeannie.” Peter is unfailingly honest about his own transformation and the unlikely straight man to most of the jokes.
Polsky and Hall, both rising seniors at the University of Miami, handle their roles professionally, even if they are a few years too young. Most importantly, they master the comedic timing Aman’s quips demand. L.A.-based Paul is immediately likable and fresh, even if most of the older, gay male audience was more focused on his trim, defined physique (he spends most of the show costumed only in running shorts) and the occasional glimpses of his penis. Blanchette, a seasoned character actress, commands the stage in her every scene, but always allows her castmates to shine.
While not perfect, ultimately, “Off Balance” succeeds in the cardinal role of entertainment: “Always leave them [audiences] wanting more.” While Aman will not be penning any new works, his legacy is secure, thanks to the devotion of Bush and this heartfelt production.
Michael Aman’s “Off Balance: A Comic Parable” will be presented through July 25 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $30 at EmpireStage.com.