It’s one thing for a new show to take place, for the most part, in the downtown Manhattan of the 1980s and ’90s. It’s another to make audience members feel as if they are watching it contemporaneously: Eduardo Machado’s “Not About Me,” which just opened at Theater for the New City, could have been airlifted wholesale from that era.
For New York theatergoers who lived through those times, the occasionally ramshackle acting and the endearingly primitive projections make for an experience akin to stepping into a hot-tub time machine. Younger people might think they have chanced upon a diorama of vintage East Village theater. Everybody is likely to agree that the eye-searing abundance of ill-fitting pants is pushing verisimilitude a pleat too far.
The protagonist and narrator of “Not About Me” (take that title with a grain of salt) is a Cuban-born gay playwright named Eduardo (Mateo d’Amato) who bears a striking resemblance to Machado, a Cuban-born gay playwright. This autofictional bent is par for the course for an artist who has long drawn on his own story. Eduardo is even married to a Harriett, as Machado was in real life for nearly 20 years — “your wife who you have always made an offstage character in all your plays,” according to one of Eduardo’s friends, Frank (Ellis Charles Hoffmeister).
Machado has acknowledged that “Not About Me” was prompted by the arrival of Covid, which reminded him of AIDS, “the first pandemic of my generation,” as Eduardo puts it. The show, which the playwright also directed, starts in the mid-1980s, when AIDS was still thought of as “the gay disease.” Dancing and cruising in clubs, Eduardo and his buddies are at first oblivious to the new viral threat, then mildly worried, then terrified. Complicating matters, he thinks of himself as bisexual. Eduardo spends most of the show flirting with men, especially Gerald (Michael Domitrovich, with whom, in another example of a real-life connection, Machado collaborated on the memoir “Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home”), and going through an obsession with a troubled, temperamental actress named Donna (Heather Velazquez). He gets flak from both sides, as when his friend Tommy (Charles Manning) jokes that Eduardo should write a play titled “How to Go From Bisexual to Gay When It’s Convenient for Your Career.”
Eduardo is almost always portrayed as the object of everybody’s desire, including, in a more platonic way, another actress, the Los Angeles-based Marjorie (Sharon Ullrick, stepping in for Crystal Field at the performance I attended). They are rehearsing a short Tennessee Williams play whose feverishness reflects Eduardo’s approach to life — swashbuckling, peacockish, omnivorous. More important, Marjorie has cancer, and Eduardo must learn to accept her looming death.
The play can never settle on a tone, and many scenes land askew, teetering uneasily between earnestness and flamboyance — it often feels as if dramatic ones are played for laughs, and vice versa. It’s also never quite clear whether Machado, with cleareyed honesty, deliberately paints Eduardo as somewhat ruthless and a narcissist (after learning two of his friends have died, he wonders, “On my 40th birthday?”) or if he’s oblivious to how his alter ego comes across. This tension between intention and lack of polish — the show does not feel like it’s been workshopped to death — at least makes “Not About Me” stand out.
The play slowly makes its way through the decades and ends in the present, with another pandemic that both crushes and spurs Eduardo. “To write, or not to write, that is the question,” he asks. Let’s rejoice that he chose to write.
Not About Me
Through Feb. 5 at Theater for the New City, Manhattan; theaterforthenewcity.net. Running time: 2 hours.