By Marcus Youssef. Directed by Rachel Ditor. An Arts Club and Neworld Theatre production. At the Revue Stage on Wednesday, March 6. Continues until March 23
How Has My Love Affected You? is very personal, but it stays on the other side of the room. Watching it, I was rarely touched by it.
In this evening, writer and performer Marcus Youssef explores his relationship with his mother, Roleene, often using Roleene’s own writing to do so. Youssef’s teenage son, Zak, plays keyboards and sings Veda Hille’s songs, which also take their lyrics from Roleene’s diary entries, and so on.
Youssef goes into painful territory, and there’s no faulting his honesty, but I never deeply invested in the mother-son dynamic because, from the top, Youssef paints a picture in which Roleene is narcissistic and dangerously nutty.
“I wouldn’t mind forgetting Marcus,” Roleene writes in one of the first entries her son reads. “His name. Everything.” The playwright tells us that when he was 16, his mother shared a dream she had in which the two of them were lovers.
Youssef tells us how attached he was to his mom, but he gives us zero sense of the pleasures—or perceived safety—of that intimacy. In other words, he doesn’t invite us in.
So for too long, the tone of the script doesn’t change: it’s an extended complaint about how Roleene fucked up Youssef and made his life difficult. Despite being quoted, Roleene never gets her own voice: she never coherently challenges Youssef’s point of view. And although Youssef admits that he can be an asshole, he shows us little of his own darkness. Some insight and change eventually emerge, but they come late.
That said, the details of the family dysfunction are vivid. The artifacts that Youssef displays using projections—photographs, wacky Post-it notes—authenticate the story. And both Youssef and his son are charming performers. The playwright’s presence is warmly casual, and he and Zak make their interactions feel spontaneous.
Hille’s songs are, of course, gorgeous. One, in which Hille draws the lyrics from Roleene’s diary entry about living in a motel in Bakersfield, California, is particularly poignant. Zak performs these songs with humble grace.
Late in the evening, projection designer Jamie Nesbitt uses Naomi Sider’s simple set, which consists largely of cardboard boxes, to create a beautiful, shimmering effect.
How Has My Love Affected You? doesn’t lack in daring, but it needs a better structure if it hopes to transcend the bounds of private experience.