November 10, 2023 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Theater

REVIEW: Friendly Flattery Hinders the Potential of Himbos

REVIEW: Friendly Flattery Hinders the Potential of Himbos

By Vanessa Reseland

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2023–24 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Himbos by Brian Pope, a collaborative response from Vanessa Reseland with guest panelists Karen Cordaro, Eric Graf, and Luis Zul.

Walking into the New Hazlett Theatre on a Friday night, the CSA review panel entered a campy wonderland of hot pink glitz and arts & crafts glamour designed by Tucker Topel. An appropriately upbeat soundtrack by sound designer, Parag S. Gohel, included Gaga’s “Stupid Love” and house beats found in gay clubs across the country. A sign reading, “Himbos Don’t F**k Customers” hung, uncensored, above the lockers in the employee changing area. Upstage center, a raised stage, microphone, and a fully stocked bar prepared us for the show within the show. The tone was appropriately set for a rompy night of entertainment. We had entered the male-themed restaurant created by playwright Brian Pope, Himbos.

A “himbo” is a slang stereotype encapsulated by the on-stage employees (and self-proclaimed himbosin their mantra, “Pure of Heart, Broad of Chest, Dumb of Ass.”

Based on the real-life Texas eatery, Tallywackers, Himbos’ mission was to provide a gaze-worthy spectacle of objectified males who would welcome customers, take orders, make drinks, and receive tips. It was marketed as “Hooters for Women” but all eyes and wallets were welcome.

While this production was exceedingly fun, highly energetic, absolutely endearing, and full of promise, there were inconsistencies between the dialogue being spoken and what we saw onstage. The directorial choices by Shannon Knapp took the tone in multiple directions, repeatedly confusing the review panel. Was this show heightened camp or heartfelt comedy? There was clear talent on the stage, successfully drawing laughs, but their efforts couldn’t get us all on board simply because we never fully understood what we were watching.

The plot, lively and buoyant, attempted to expose the humanity beneath the himbo exterior. The teasing script seemed to have the intention to chisel away at the beefcake stereotype that connected the characters on paper, but the actors who were cast were already rich and varied in physicality and personality. The story revealed unique individuals with rich thoughts and feelings, navigating unique life circumstances. However, the actors did not all display the stereotypical physical or behavioral masculinity that the script seemed to be undermining. The characters seemed to have no commonalities between them besides their shared workspace.

Costumes by Claudia Brownlee could have told us everything we needed to know about objectification in a place like Himbos, but instead of parading a “meat market” of employees, actors were dressed like they had just finished a low-key workout. Each character donned cute, shiny hot pink gym shorts and had their own version of a baggy sleeveless T, marked with the Himbos logo (a flexing bicep muscle). A Tallywackers Google image search will show you the exact look of the men hired at this type of establishment and the barely-there uniforms they were expected to wear, yet at Himbos, there were no skin-tight booty shorts on servers or shirtless bartenders with bowties. Much of the plot required the audience to make intellectual jumps from the reality of objectification in the Himbos world vs. the reality in our world.

Wardrobe affects how we feel about ourselves, how we carry ourselves, how others perceive us. If the story is about objectified men with biceps and broad chests, characters need to carry themselves like men who are paid to have people look at their bodies, but many of the actors carried themselves with the confidence of comedians, the swagger of comedians, the unselfconsciousness about their bodies of…comedians. Their confidence didn’t come from their physicality, it came from the fact that they were funny. This would work if Himbos were a comedy club. In the post-show Q&A, it came to light that casting for the show rejected an audition process. Knapp, instead, opted to call on friends with straight offers for the role, provided they read the script. Not all of the actors followed those directions, but all of them accepted. This is a potential example of friendly enthusiasm sabotaging the creative insights revealed when one collaborates outside of their comfort zone.

There is a body-thoughtful point one can take away from the story of beefy, objectified men who put on a show when at work and grapple with heartfelt obstacles and insecurities when they clock out. It was unclear how the himbos felt about being objectified because we never saw them actively objectified. There were no interactions with customers aside from a conversation between Kyle and a lesbian who hated Himbos but was confusingly there waiting to break up with her girlfriend. One other male couple watching football in the background began to ambiguously harass one of the Himbos employees but then quietly disappeared. Do we need to witness himbos being objectified to understand their job or their mindsets?

Brian Pope.

While the direction kept us busy bouncing between styles, the script went beyond the stereotypes. Each character faced economic hardships, relationship struggles, and the moral questions faced as one cobbles together a life. Writer and creator Brian Pope’s ear is to the ground, but the lack of stylistic cohesion thwarted any chance we had to connect with these characters fully.

Pope did an adept job shifting between A, B, and C storylines. However, the style of each storyline varied so much in this production that the shifts felt jarring and more confusing as we would jump from one to the other. One moment, we would witness Dylan Meyers as Beau pouring his heart out to the new chef Zachariah Washington’s Sean as sincerely romantic sparks flew between them. The next moment, Tyler Ray Kendrick’s Ari and José Pérez IV’s Kyle would be swinging trash bags in the alley with the realism of a Bugs Bunny cartoon or trading one-liners like they were going up late at The Comedy Store.

Moments with Kyle, Cheyenne (a grounded performance by Gayle Pazerski), and Beau were grounded and tender, and it left our sentimental side wanting more.

While Kyle (Pérez) revealed gorgeously unique deliveries as he relayed information about co-parenting an infant with his “baby mama” after breaking up, we never saw his co-parent, Danielle. Even at her own baby shower, we watched him give a speech to her, sing to her, but we never saw him interact with her or witness their reconciliation.

The relationship between the sweet and sensitive host, Beau (Dylan Meyers), and the newly hired chef, Sean (Zachariah Washington), was a blossoming of chemistry and connection. Meyer’s drew us in with their honesty and simplicity and helped drive their scenes toward the level of heartfelt vulnerability that the rest of the play often toys with. At one point, he referred to the restaurant as “a frat house without all the toxic masculinity.” Enter the bartender, Mateo, played by Victor Aponte. Of all the characters, Mateo gives the least amount of backstory or circumstances outside of Himbos. We know nothing about this character aside from what we see, which is unwavering narcissism and a willingness to take “toxic masculinity” as it was originally stated, and “make it fashion.” His cruelty toward Beau, a formerly bullied teen, is hard to redeem even with a flashy out-of-drag drag karaoke performance expertly choreographed and executed by Aponte. Mateo makes no point to try and atone and eventually drops his harassment of the happy couple for seemingly no reason. While Mateo’s reads are impressively brutal, witty, and outlandish, the veil never comes down, and we never find out what makes the bartender tick.

In an act of less fabulous, more traditionally toxic masculinity, Ari forces Kyle to lie for him, threatening Kyle if he were to reveal Ari’s major infraction of the “Himbos Don’t F**k Customers” rule, therefore risking Kyle’s livelihood by keeping this secret. Though acted well, this uncomfortable exchange shifts the tone of the relationship. In fact, many of these relationships often seem more like trauma bonds based on proximity and circumstance rather than deeply-rooted bonds of himbo connection or friendship.

Pope stated in our CSA preshow interview that the Tallywackers closing was “mysterious,” and it was clear that this mystery was written into Himbos as well. This particular commitment to mirroring reality feels unsatisfying and can turn the audience against the production. In anticlimactic reality, Tallywackers closed because “the location we had didn’t work for us and our lease was up,” according to owner, Rodney Duke. In a puzzling directorial choice, in the last scene of the show, Gayle Pazerski’s well-crafted Cheyenne, the owner of Himbos, broke the fourth wall only once. During a final monologue, sometime in the future, she eyed the audience and told the story of how she came to start Himbos with inheritance from her dismissive father. She gave a “where are they now” speech about her former employees then spoke of her broken dreams as she handed over the keys to an invisible new owner.

Ambiguity can be a powerful tool when it lets the audience compare clues in order to make their own interpretations, but the clues can only exist if the writer, director, actor make choices behind the scenes. If we are left in the dark entirely, with no crumbs to follow, we don’t fundamentally know what is happening, and our investment in the story wanes.

So many of these moments, storylines, and characters start off strong and then dissolve into the unknown. Kyle’s Baby-Mama, Danielle, has her shower, but we never see her. Ari gets fired, and despite a poignant selfie on the dance floor, he never says goodbye to anyone. We get bits of dialogue relating to Cheyenne’s fascinating backstory, but we never follow those threads. The restaurant closes, and we have no idea why. The audience needed some resolution, some closure, some clarity or else we were left high and dry.

An overtly enthusiastic audience clearly bolstered Himbos from beginning to end, but it seemed that many audience members were somehow associated with those on stage. Feedback from an audience full of supportive and loving friends can feel euphoric, but it does not serve the well-being of the writer, actors, or the production. The panel’s critique and review is one I hope can offer an honest mirror held to the New Hazlett Theater production of Himbos because it is so clear that Pope is on the edge of something very special with this script. As a review panel, we were excited and engaged when discussing what worked in this production. This show is so clearly on the verge of discovering itself fully. We want to see the hilarious and heartfelt heights to which this draft can be taken with more challenging artistic collaboration and creative clarity. Keep workshopping. Keep writing. Keep going. We look forward to being repeat customers at Himbos.

Review Panel:

Vanessa Reseland (they/them) is an actor/singer/songwriter, who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in the North Hills, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working in musical theatre, film, and television. They played the Witch in Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods in London and on the US National Tour, winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Visiting Production and the LA Critic’s Circle Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Vanessa is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and co-created and co-directed the webseries, Remarkable Women, with Alexandra Lenihan. They have performed their original music/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012 Vanessa is currently very happy to be back in Pittsburgh and diving into the arts scene.

Karen Cordaro — Mrs. C Founded ACT ONE Theatre School in 1986. She holds a BA in Psychology from Seton Hill College and teacher certification in secondary English. She also attended the University of Pittsburgh for postgraduate studies. She wrote the script and co-wrote the lyrics for SESJUN (an internationally broadcast jazz program with Holland’s Metropolitan Orchestra), directed the ROUTE 66 performance with the cast of THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL in Rotterdam, wrote lyrics for a WELLA BALSAM European commercial, wrote lyrics for Ernie Sabella’s opening song at the ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE’S award gala in New York City, and has written for PARAMOUNT INTERNATIONAL. She co-wrote three workshop iterations of an original musical version of Alice in Wonderland. Mrs. C has taught and directed Pittsburgh area children for over 40 years.

Eric Graf

Luis Zul


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