Comedian and performer Don Reed is well known among Bay Area theater aficionados for his self-referential monologues, each of which chronicles a different phase of his life. His show, East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player, about his upbringing as the son of a pimp father and a Jehovah's Witness mother, was extended nineteen times and became one of the longest running solo shows in the Marsh Theater's history.
This summer, he returns to the Marsh with something completely different. Reed takes a surprising break from his autobiographical work in Stereotypo: Rants and Rumblings at the DMV, and it's his most ambitious production to date. In the sometimes preachy but mostly entertaining one-man show, Reed takes on nine different characters, attempting to challenge the stereotypes associated with each.
The characters in Stereotypo are brought together by the infuriatingly long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, a dreadful place that tends to bring out the worst in people — or so the play posits. Through a series of monologues, Reed begins to paint a predictable portrait of each character. He then abruptly shifts gears, adding surprising backstories in an attempt to reveal that there is always more to a person than surface appearance. The lesson is that the "types" we ascribe to people are, in fact, "typos" — mistakes resulting from kneejerk assumptions.
The play's characters accurately reflect the diverse group of people one would expect to see at the DMV, albeit with a twist. The feisty Black woman who works behind the counter is secretly a math prodigy. The old Jewish man who complains about the price of a ticket spares no expense when it comes to taking care of his employees. The trans woman who desires a name and sex change on her license loves and deliberately retains her deep voice. Through the monologues of each character, the comedian hopes to instill lessons about prejudgments and why they are dangerous, harmful, and ultimately inaccurate.
Given Reed's past work, it's no surprise that most of his self-crafted speeches are peppered with humor. A slew of dirty jokes told by a Pakistani cab driver is a crowd-pleaser potentially worth the ticket price on its own. Reed also excels at physical comedy, and his numerous dance interludes vacillate between being self-effacing and impressively charismatic. The performer can pirouette almost as well as he can deliver a punch line, allowing him to sashay through several characters with charm and wit.
Those moments of levity are the high points of the solo-show. Considering its setting and star, Stereotypo could be uproarious yet poignant from start to finish. But, toward the end of its eighty-minute run, the show falls prey to proselytizing. By the third act and the sixth character, the lessons Reed hopes to instill are no longer gracefully laid out, but expressed through heavy-handed exposition. He unnecessarily spells out how each character deviates from the "type" prescribed to them, stripping the play of some much-needed nuance, and robbing the audience of the opportunity to critically reflect on the characters.
Furthermore, while characters such as the Pakistani cab driver show the actor to be a skilled chameleon, other personas he adopts are beyond even his ability to camouflage. He is hardly believable as a Hispanic blind man who has Daredevil-esque fighting abilities — the Spanish accent doesn't stick. He's even less believable as a thirty-something mentally challenged woman who faces sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle. Reed is a talented performer, but some of his characters require theatergoers to stretch their imaginations to the breaking point. Additionally, the aforementioned two characters seem to conform to stereotypes more than they dispel or challenge them.
The farther removed Reed is from the demographic he impersonates, the more lackluster his impersonation is. The closer, the more hilarious, which is why his autobiographical monologues and stand-up gigs have done so well. Despite his good intentions, Reed doesn't need to be anyone else to deliver a powerful message, and he's at his very best when he doesn't try. That being said, Stereotypo will still be the most enjoyable trip to the DMV you'll ever have.