D.J. Mendel on the Upswing in Bushwick

11/09/2011 7:30 AM |

Dick Done Broke
Written and performed by D.J. Mendel
Directed by Dan Safer

Ubiquitous Downtown actor-writer D.J. Mendel debuted this one-man show (through November 19) at Richard Foreman’s Ontological Theater, in 1999—it was then titled My Dick Done Broke—when its boozy narrative of a blue-collar worker’s actual and symbolic impotence reflected the city’s transformation during the Giuliani regime. Its themes of working-class dispossession and disorientation are only more pertinent 12 years on, at a cultural moment marked by occupations, general strikes, collapsing national economies and widening income disparity. The hypnotic set design underlines all these factors, plus the alcoholism: for 60 minutes Mendel lies, crawls, wriggles and teeters on a platform swinging a few feet above a stage littered with empty booze bottles. “Most likely it’s the middle of the night and the floor,” he guesses.

This abstracted spinning room evokes Beckett, especially Happy Days, as do lines like, “I have undergrown my jacket—I’m shrinking.” But Mendel’s dialogue generally cuts existentialism with hard-boiled drunk banter and a relatively coherent story. Don, often called “Donny” by an internalized interlocutor who’s alternately his father, wife, child or younger self, works the night shift at a steel mill and almost never sees his family. “I had much bigger plans,” he assures us. Donny airs his grievances while shifting from funny to angry to sad and back again, as drunks do so well. His body is restless too. He repeatedly tries to get up only to stumble and fall, pees over the platform’s edge, uses his tie as a pillow, rifles through his pockets for a match or lighter and finds a whiskey bottle and shot glass instead. Mendel offers a relatable and readily universalized account of powerlessness given texture by foggy fragments of a life literally being pissed away before our eyes. The actor’s booming voice projects authority even when spoken face-down on the floor, while the platform’s continuous, metronome-like swinging evokes—in addition to drunkenness—a world of nefarious forces conspiring to undermine that authority.

(Photos: Dan Sharnoff and Richard Sylvarness)