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Theater review: 'Palomino' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

May 16, 2010 |  3:40 pm

Cale “Palomino,” the new solo performance piece by Obie-winner David Cale, spins a series of concentric tales, beginning with the story of an accidental male hustler — an Irish horse-and-carriage driver in New York’s Central Park who stumbles into a much-better-paying sideline.
As soap-opera creators have known for ages, there’s nothing like the tease of a little soft-core action to reel in a mainstream audience. Imaginations have a way of shifting into overdrive when erotic bliss is on the line.
Cale’s sensitivity to loneliness and longing, combined with his pleasure in idiosyncratic voices and vocabularies, keeps the focus on hearts and minds rather than body parts. No, there’s no need for a raid of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, where this simple show has set up shop with just a few stools, a projection screen and an actor-author-director whose power to captivate would be greater if his editing instincts were sharper.

Palomino 2 Like many good raconteurs, Cale doesn’t always know when enough is enough. The issue here isn’t length but focus. “Palomino” hasn’t quite figured out its own proportions.

Cale first introduces us to Kieren McGrath, the charismatic Irishman who wears his fedora with a difference now that he's discovered a new set of marketable skills, thanks to an insinuating and entrepreneurial passenger, He then allows the women (paying, non-paying and one getting a commission) to take center stage.

Sadly, none of these  female figures can match the seductive charm and mystery of the Colin Farrell-styled lover-for-hire. Cale, who launched Kieren’s tale on NPR before developing it into a more elaborate theater piece, allows his best character to become a supporting player.

A wiry performance artist, he prowls the attractively sparse set (designed by Takeshi Kata), a masculine wraith in jeans and a tank top, and you find yourself waiting for his breathy feminine mimicry to give way once more to that sonorous brogue and plaid work shirt. 

What’s fascinating about Kieren is his mix of reluctance and adventurous intrigue. He’s in on the game but not completely. “I’m a good gambler,” he says after scoring a few successes in his moonlighting gig. “I know when to fold."

His pimp, Marsha, a well-put-together American with connections to wealthy single women of a certain age, tries to lure him with lucre. “You could make 300,000 dollars a year,” she tells him. “I could send you all over the world. You got a good seven years in you. You could retire at 40.”

But Kieren, who reads Rilke and Lorca while on duty, has ambitions of being a writer. He also has an appreciation for romance, though monogamy with Vallie, a widow who lives among priceless works of art and the sacrosanct memory of her rich husband, strikes him as a bit of a stretch.

“It’s not every day you stand stark naked in front of a Matisse,” Kieren remarks. But a luxurious playpen is no substitute for freedom, and when he senses the slightest neediness in his client, you can be sure that he’ll be groping for the nearest exit (or nubile attraction).

Cale offers glimpses into Vallie’s psyche, the incessant wine drinking, the refusal to accept the slights and snubs of aging. She confides to Marsha early on that she feels as if she’s “joined the ranks of the sexually invisible.” Formerly a “miss,” she’s crossed into the forbidding desert known as “ma’am.”
But this credible character outline never becomes flesh and blood. Cale has no trouble convincing us that he’s a Dublin Adonis, no matter that he's not conventionally handsome. But when playing the opposite sex, he resorts to vocal tricks and clichéd mannerisms. His acting thickens.

It’s almost a relief when Edward, a gay English book publisher, enters the story, and Cale, donning some bold eyewear, can resume a male identity. But by this time, "Palomino" feels like it's in overtime.

As it happens, Kieren tries to get Edward, who has a connection to Vallie, interested in publishing his tell-all diaries. This coincidence enables Cale to take his theme of the bartering of love in a more generous direction. The outcome is far from inevitable, but Cale’s initial conceit sparks enough fascination to sustain our wonder past all the longueurs. 

-- Charles McNulty

“Palomino,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 6. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Photos, top and bottom: David Cale. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times