Uncle Bob

The uproariously articulate Uncle Bob lives alone in his small Greenwich Village apartment. Although he and his wife are totally devoted to one another, she's left him as she just can't put up with him anymore, yet he still speaks, at length, to her even though she's gone. This is fine with him -- he's happy in his hermitage, until one evening, Josh, his nephew, turns up uninvited. Josh is a very unstable young man, possibly suicidal, probably dangerous and definitely unwelcome. It seems that all Josh wants to do is torture his reclusive uncle but he soon reveals the rather dubious real reason he's run away from home: he has come in order to convince Bob to return with him to his family so they can care for him. Bob has AIDS. Although Josh insists this is the true reason for his visit, both men know there are other reasons. They begin a bitter macabre dance as the true nature of their relationship slowly reveals itself. Even though they seem to detest each other, their need for acceptance and love soon overpowers them as they explore their self hatred and their hatred of others, accept their uncomfortable kinship and wield their sexuality as weapons, and, ultimately, employ disease as a form of suicide. Do they really find what it is they're looking for as the play reaches its violent and disturbing conclusion?
~ Dramatists Play Service Inc.

I met Gale Harold for the first time in April of 2001, on a rainy evening in SoHo, in front of the theater where he was performing in Austin Pendleton's 'Uncle Bob,' presented by the Rebellion Theatre Company, and directed by Courtney Moorehead.

A friend and I flew from Ottawa, Ontario to New York for a weekend of shopping and sightseeing -- the main attraction being Mr. Gale Harold, of course. :-) On a trip uptown one afternoon, I saw a billboard for QAF, and took a quick picture when the bus stopped at a red light:

We took a taxi to the SoHo Playhouse on Saturday night and were surprised at how unassuming this little theater was. Tucked away on a narrow street, in a row of nondescript buildings, the only thing giving it away was the large canopy bearing its name, which on this evening provided shelter to many patrons waiting for the rest of their parties. We climbed the steps to the box office, and secured our copies of the playbill and postcard advertising the production. We took our seats right away, and found ourselves sitting just right of center in the third row. As the old joke goes, if we were any closer, we would have been IN the play ourselves. I had to laugh when I read the first line of Gale's bio in the 'Who's Who' section of the playbill: "College dropout, hack mechanic, decent drinker."

The theater had wonderful ambiance. I kept looking around at the faded pictures on the walls, the evenly-spaced, narrow rows of seats, the well-worn boards of the stage, and could almost hear the creak of footsteps made by performers of productions gone by. The playhouse was by no means musty, however, as some older auditoriums can be. There was a definite energy in the building, which, combined with my nervous anticipation at the thought of seeing Gale on stage instead of through a television screen, created a distinct aura of excitement.

The house was not packed, but by the time the lights dimmed, there was a substantial crowd filling the seats, made up of mostly couples from what I could tell. This was one of the last nights of rehearsal before opening night, and they started a few minutes past eight o'clock. As we waited in anticipation for the actors to appear, Gale's quote from a recent interview kept running through my head: "The moment you're sitting in the theater, that's the moment it should be about."

Gale enjoyed playing the role of Josh because the character is so different from Brian Kinney on Queer As Folk, a calculating stoic who thrives on manipulation and exploitation. "[Josh] has never had any kind of meaningful relationship on any level with anyone except his uncle, but in a protracted, psychological imagined way," he says of his character. "Even though he's full of all this energy and this feeling, he's really naive at the same time." [Source: MetroSource Magazine, June/July 2001]

In an April 19, 2001 interview, Jim Caruso asked Gale who has inspired him as an actor. Here's what Gale had to say:

Gale: "I saw The Play About the Baby, and Marian Seldes was so extremely alive in it. Of course, it's a brilliant role with great lines, but her delivery and timing were out of this world. It's like she's having a love affair with what she's doing on stage. At the time I saw her performance, I was trying to figure out how to deal with my character in Uncle Bob, and how to deal with the character of Uncle Bob. He's very sophisticated and impenetrable; Josh is trying to get through to him but, with his vernacular, speech patterns, and rhythms, Josh seems like a kid banging on a rock with a hammer. When I saw Marian Seldes, she made me realize what it means to be on stage. That feeling of communication is what pulled me from working with two-dimensional visual arts into the world of the theater."

I was not familiar with George Morfogen's work prior to seeing the play, but I have since become a faithful viewer of Oz on Showcase. Having seen Uncle Bob, I can appreciate that much more the subtlety of his performance on the powerful prison drama, where many characters are larger than life, and Bob Rebadow is a strong, supporting player (yes, his name is 'Bob' on the television show, too).

In the following paragraphs, I have described some of the scenes that I felt were most significant and touched on the pivotal themes of the play. Some of the most powerful ideas in Uncle Bob are put forth in the most rudimentary turns of phrase, and in the most ordinary of activities, which I believe is a brilliant move on the part of Austin Pendleton. There is a generous portion of humor in the script, which tempers the often somber tone of the play. I could almost feel Gale and George conspiring on stage. The collaboration between playwright and actors was most evident in the second half of the production.

One morning Josh returns to his uncle's apartment after having been out all night, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups at a fast food place. He is visibly agitated by the amount of caffeine he has consumed, and his hands are shaking as he pours himself yet another from the pot on Bob's stove.

Bob: Put down that cup.
Josh: I will not put down this cup, Bob. This cup is pretty; it's plain.

It is a simple statement, but speaks volumes about what is going on in Josh's head at this point in the play.

The night before, Bob and Josh discussed Bob's attraction to Josh, and how he has lusted after him for years (although he never acted on it).

Bob: You were sitting all night in...
Josh: Burger King! It's the first time in this fucking city that I've felt relaxed. I thought to myself, 'Okay, Josh, you're home.'
Bob: You were not relaxed, don't lie to me.
Josh: Oh, I was relaxed, Bob.
Bob: You were terrified that if you came home, your uncle Bob would take you by force.

It is doubtful that deep down Josh actually believes his uncle is capable of such violence against him; however, each heated exchange between the two adds kindling to the potential inferno which threatens to spark into flame at any moment.

Josh later smashes the porcelain coffee cup in the middle of another argument with his uncle. In trying to clean up the mess, he cuts his hand. Bob wants to tend to the wound, but because he is bleeding, Josh insists that his uncle leave him be... and, scared, he screams at Bob to get away and calls him a 'faggot.'

Gale: "Josh isn't a fag-basher by any stretch. I think that, if his uncle hadn't been infected with the AIDS virus, he might not be so homophobic. The actual mechanics of Uncle Bob's sexuality have really screwed with Josh's head. He thinks his uncle is a genius, and he's the only person he has ever connected with."

The next morning, Bob is going through his glossies, preparing to audition for the lead role in a production of Hamlet, after seeing an ad in the paper 'Backstage.' He explains to Josh that Hamlet, being 35, was middle-aged by the standards of his time.

Bob: I can play this part. I can play it now. Besides... they're doing it on Staten Island.

Later, the two have a heated argument, and in a very dramatic twist, they exit the stage and we hear the sounds of Josh actually beating up his uncle in another room. There are some powerful silences which follow, one of the most dramatic being a five minute scene where Josh is all alone on stage, reacting to what he has done. Before Bob leaves for the audition, Josh wishes him luck, and the tension is broken ever so slightly.

When Bob returns from the audition, Josh asks how it went. Knowing how Bob's mind works, and having listened for hours to his pontificating on various subjects, Josh's reaction is quite amusing:

Bob: I didn't show them my talent. It didn't get that far.
Josh: Well then, what did you do?
Bob: I showed them my mind.
Josh: Oh shit.

Bob describes to Josh what he said about Hamlet to the producers of the play:

Bob: Don't you see what you're doing? You're idealizing him! Don't you see what he is? He hates women! He's afraid of women. And for centuries he's been regarded as the finest, fairest, most brilliant man in western culture, the spokesman for a whole civilization... and he's sick. And no one will admit it. And until we do, we're doomed! Oh god, I cried, please, please believe me, I can show you, I can do it. Don't cast some fucking sensitive young man, don't keep glorifying this young rot.
Josh: What did they do at this point?
Bob: They thanked me for my insights. They thought my mind was brilliant. I said, 'My mind, my mind? This is not my mind.' And I left.

After some small talk, Josh feels the need to address the proverbial pink elephant sitting in the middle of the room.

Josh: Anyway, we've got to not beat around the bush about this, we've got to put it out on the table... Bob, I beat the shit out of you this morning and you haven't even mentioned it.
Bob: What's the point of mentioning it?
Josh: I don't know right off what the point is, Bob... maybe there's no point. I don't know. You're not, like, injured are you?
Bob: Well, I'm bruised, I think.
Josh: I don't mean bruised, Bob, I mean fucking injured. Something serious.
Bob: Well I went all the way to Staten Island.
Josh: It's not right, you know, I had to say it. I'd like to... you know, make it up to you.
Bob: No, please, no... just don't do it anymore, that's it. [hesitating] I don't know what to say on these occasions.

Josh continues the conversation with an unexpected (and rather startling) offer:

Josh: I mean, I'd like to... you know... [long pause] ... make love to you.
Bob: [quietly] You see, now you've offended me.
Josh: Look, Bob, don't get uptight.
Bob: In the first place...
Josh: [animated, loudly] In the first place? What? Is there going to be a list? I mean, you're like pissing me off.
Bob: No, you're pissing me off.
Josh: Okay, okay, but I think I ought to warn you, Bob, I'm not backing off on this.
Bob: Josh, I think I ought to point out...
Josh: Point out? Point out what?
Bob: That you need my consent for this to happen.
Josh: I know that! You think I don't know that? I didn't think it would be much of a problem. You said you've lusted after me since I was eight.
Bob: But you're not.... this is ridiculous! You said you weren't.
Josh: What? Gay? That's right. I mean I'm not gay.
Bob: Well then....
Josh: That will be like an additive.
Bob: Add what?
Josh: It will make it more of a gift, or something.
Bob: [recoiling] This is sick! I always knew you were very troubled... I always thought you needed...
Josh: I've had therapy, Bob. I've had therapy up the ass, if you'll pardon the expression.
Bob: Oh, so, now you're getting insolent.
Josh: Now, Bob, I don't think you're being very gracious about this.
Bob: Well....[thinking of something appropriate to say]... this is very kind. I'm just... taken aback.

What I loved about this play was the myriad of emotions coursing through me as I listened to the dialogue; I was at once sympathetic to Bob's plight, acutely aware of Josh's vulnerability, and at the same time incredibly amused by the absurdity of the situation at hand. I credit George for his sense of timing and delivery, and Gale for his ability to inhabit the mind of a naive young man and make me believe that Josh is truly as vulnerable as he appears to be.

Bob goes on to explain why he cannot accept Josh's 'gift.'

Bob: Now Josh, I must be fair. I must be honest. And, this is my problem, I guess. With men, I don't like safe sex. Which means that ever since I knew I was infected I've abstained, Josh. And it's not just that as you put it, so unforgettably Josh it's not just that I'm not an expert on it; I don't like it. And I don't mean metaphorically, I don't mean emotionally...
Josh: No, Bob, I know what you mean.
Bob: I mean physically. I like unsafe sex. Not because it's unsafe, although come to think of it, that may be part of it.
Josh: I didn't say it had to be safe sex.
Bob: [Confused] What?
Josh: I figured you were into the bad way, I mean, really, otherwise why would you be in this stupid, fucking situation?
Bob: What are you saying?
Josh: [Angry] What do you mean, what am I saying? Do you want me to draw you a fucking diagram?
Bob: [Furious] Get out of here!
Josh: Hey! Chill!
Bob: I don't believe this!

Josh tries to explain his motivation. It's obvious that he doesn't feel his life has amounted to much, and since everyone around him keeps saying he's going to end up killing himself anyway, he might as well go out with a 'bang.' (pardon the expression). And, it's obvious that he looks up to his uncle, despite their differences, and he wants to share something meaningful with him before it's all over.

Josh: Look, Bob, you said to me, don't drive over the dividing line you said that. And look, I thought about it, but if you're going to bother to kill yourself... because let's face it, Bob, I might... I mean, I wouldn't like take a gun or anything, but we all know that I'll probably do the deed one way or another before I'm whatever. I mean, what difference does it make? I don't want to be flip, Bob, I don't want a fucking lecture from you. So okay, it was a few more episodes or something, I hadn't really figured out a plot. But anyway, sure, don't drive over the dividing line, I have to agree with you, I mean that's like murder or some fucking thing. But Bob, it's boring to just drive into a tree. See, Bob, I've been thinking all about this. You got me thinking, but then you always have. That's why I wanted you to come back with me. I mean, I hate New York.
Bob: [Kindly] Josh, do you know what they call what you're doing?
Josh: Who cares what they call it?
Bob: Altruistic suicide.
Josh: Okay, Bob, altruistic suicide... whatever turns you on.
Bob: Now Josh, wait, listen to me. Altruistic suicide loses its point when the person you're being altruistic to becomes the weapon.
Josh: [Frustrated] But you're lonely, man, you're going to die lonely! You know what? So will I! What are we talking about... I'm getting impatient.
Bob: Josh, I can't do this.
Josh: Yes you can, you know you can, it's just you won't. I hate to say it, Bob, but that is your whole life, with everything; it's just... you won't.
Bob: Whatever.
Josh: So this is, like, 'no?'
Bob: That's right.
Josh: I don't believe it.
Bob: Neither do I, Josh.
Josh: No, I do believe it. In fact, I'm a little bit ahead of you.
Bob: [Still trying to wrap his mind around this] Josh, you're way ahead of me.
(Again, another brilliant line delivered with comedic perfection, smack-dab in the middle of an intense exchange, eliciting a hearty chuckle from the spellbound audience in the theater that night)
Josh: No, I mean, I took steps to get around this. I thought I could reach out... so, now, don't get mad, Bob...
Bob: What did you do?
Josh: I anticipated your objections so I...
Bob: So you what?

I'm assuming the scenario Josh describes next is supposed to have taken place in Burger King...

Josh: I went up to this guy who was coughing and I said, 'Hey man you look like shit. I'm sick too, doesn't this suck? So let's get it on.'
Bob: What did he say?
Josh: He cried. I don't think he was expecting it. He took me by the hand, took me up to his room.
Bob: I don't believe this. I don't believe a word of it.
Josh: Well that's your problem, Bob. I mean, what good are you if you can't accept a simple gift? I mean, I know you keep telling me you're no good, but what good are you really, Bob?
Bob: I'll tell you what good I am, I'm good enough not to give in to this. This is a lie. I always wondered what good I am. Well, now I know. I'm good enough not to believe this lie and do what you're asking me to do, even though I want to. But thank you, Josh, you've done a Christian act just by trying to get me to believe this lie. But you don't have to take it any further because that's a good thing, and this way you'll live, and you'll know how generous you are. I don't think you've ever known how generous you are. And that's why I think you've been so lost.
Josh: I have his number. I took his number.
Bob: If he told me the whole thing in detail, I would not believe a word of it.

In the end, we are left to our own interpretation of what happens next, as there is no resolution. Bob finally asks Josh, who is sitting on the other side of the room, to 'come here,' and Josh says, 'in a minute.' Whether Bob was simply going to reach out to his nephew with a simple hug, or initiate more significant physical contact, we aren't sure.

Going back to the April 19 interview, Caruso asks, "The play ends with a lot of unanswered questions; the audience is left to decide what happens. Have you chosen an outcome in your mind?" Gale responds: "No. I let the play end right where it ends. Uncle Bob is like a snapshot of life. The trajectory of the characters is clear; you see where they start and where they are headed, but there's no happy ending where the ends are tied up neatly. There's no structural resolution. I'm not sure what Austin's intention was, but you really get involved with the relationship of the characters. The play is about their struggle. That's so interesting for me, because it's like eavesdropping."

After the play was over, we went downstairs to the lounge area for a few minutes, then returned to the small front lobby where I gathered extra copies of the playbill. Outside, the rain was coming down in torrents, so we waited with a few other fans who had gathered under the canopy and were soon joined by one of the staff members from the Playhouse. He asked us where we were from, how we heard about the play, etc. He seemed genuinely surprised to hear that Micheline and I had traveled all the way from Canada, and was sorry to hear that we wouldn't be in town on Monday for the Premiere, as they were expecting some big-name celebrities like Tim Robbins and Olympia Dukakis, and many close friends of Austin Pendleton.

It seems Monday is a popular day of the week for actors starring in Broadway productions to get out to the theater themselves, since many shows are 'dark' on Monday nights, or use the understudies. We learned that sometimes the best seats in the house go to those who purchase tickets at the last minute, because the SoHo Playhouse reserves six seats in the front row at every performance for the owners of the theater, and once the owners let the box office know that they will not be using the tickets on a given night, those seats are made available to the public.

George was the first to exit the theater, having changed into street clothes. We greeted him warmly, and he was extremely gracious and soft-spoken; there was no trace of the cantankerous Bob anywhere in sight. He signed a couple of autographs, spoke with us for a few minutes about the play, and thanked us for coming. The rain had abated, so he took his umbrella and went on his way down the street.

Gale emerged shortly thereafter, looking comfortable and relaxed in black jeans, white t-shirt, blue denim shirt, and a black leather jacket. The earphones from his portable CD player were resting around his neck, and it seemed as though he was prepared for a brisk walk back to his hotel. The look on his face when he saw several of us standing there seemed to be one of genuine surprise. He smiled at us, and immediately put his earphones away so he could give us his full attention.

Gale spoke with another fan for a few minutes, then my friend and I introduced ourselves, telling him that we had come from Canada to see him in the play. I think he must have thanked us about a dozen times for coming to see him. We spoke for a minute or so before I asked him to sign my playbill.

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All in all, it was a very memorable evening.

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