By: Isaac Gomez
At: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave. Tickets: 773-649-3186or steeptheatre.com; $27-$39. Runs through: Feb. 29
A world-premiere play commission is always a crap shoot. And Steep Theatre came up with snake eyes with The Leopard Play, or sad songs for lost boys.
This adults-only and dramaturgical mess by Isaac Gomez ( La Ruta, the way she spoke ) is ostensibly a contemporary Latinx family mystery set mainly in El Paso, Texas. It's centered around the generically named gay protagonist "Son" ( Brandon Rivera ).
When he returns home for a memorial, Son asks a lot of uncomfortable questions about a decade-old suspicious death of a drug-running uncle. Son also hooks up a lot!
The incongruity of Son's sexual exploits and his relations' in-fighting is just one head-scratching aspect of the play. There's also an abundance of Elton John songs and artsy/symbolic staging moments by director Laura Alcala Baker.
For example, Son reveals early on that he can't help but imagine his male relatives writhing to Rihanna songs when he copulates. So choreographer Breon Arzell has the often scantily clad male ensemble comply by twerking around Rivera as he simulates sex acts with Alec Coles Perez as "Boy," the designated sex partner( s ) of Son.
Just what Gomez is trying to say with The Leopard Play is puzzling. Is Son's penchant for risky and anonymous sex a reaction to toxic masculinity, Catholicism and his other ongoing daddy issues from his childhood? Or are Son's hard-drinking father, brothers and uncles also to be seen as victims of U.S. racism and machismo culture? Is this why there are no onstage female characters, even though it is mentioned that Son's mother is alive?
It's ultimately hard to care, since Son is so hypocritical and insensitive. For example, Son callously ignores the increasingly desperate voicemail messages from his gay and scatterbrained Little Brother ( Juan Muñoz ).
The play's final confrontation between Son and Dad ( Victor Maraña ) also feels like an unresolved first draft. But maybe Gomez is trying to show how many gay men never end up seeing eye to eye with their parents.
If Gomez's script is a disappointment, at least The Leopard Play impresses with performers trying to make the most of their thinly drawn characters. Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco and lighting designer Alexander Ridgers also work well together to differentiate the play's many locations from rough El Paso neighborhoods to the gay fantasies inside Son's head.
So heed Steep Theatre's many production warnings about the extreme sexuality, racist language and other potentially triggering aspects of The Leopard Play. But also be aware that it all doesn't add up to much by the end.