You are plunged into Carl Holder’s world of Charleses via a woodshop: live power tools, banging mallets, a gruff man in an ill-fitting flannel shirt. In short, it’s the setting of every cliché father/son bonding scene you can think of. From the very beginning you get the impression – aided by the occasional pervasion of the scent of shaving cream and cigarettes – that Charleses is overtly masculine. And, as I would soon find out, not in a good way.
The show starts out with a solid premise which seems promising: a man named Charles welcoming his newborn son Charles into the world, and then later, the two elder Charleses welcoming Charles the Third. We meet Charles 1 – the aforementioned gruff man – on the day his son Charles 2 is born. Charles 1 is a stoic, stern-faced type who doesn’t mince his words. Just like his woodshop, he’s an amalgamation of every masculine trope you’ve ever encountered. His story is told in a series of short, episodic snapshots which bring us through the childhood of Charles 2, Charles 3, and beyond. Charles 1 builds a cradle for Charles 2, and later teaches Charles 2 how to order a sandwich at the deli, and how to drive, and cleans his face when he nicks himself shaving. Charles 2 grows up to be more or less another embodiment of the same masculine trope that his father is, and when Charles 3 is born, the scenes repeat themselves almost exactly – except that Charles 3 is different. He refuses to be put into the same macho mould that his father and grandfather have carved out for themselves.
Holder’s dialogue is vague enough that each scene leaves the audience with emotional resonance, but not much literal context. The abstractness works well, at first. What doesn’t work well is that the script doesn’t do anything with it. What is set up to be an interesting character study winds up being neither interesting, nor, as the play goes on, a character study at all. The promise of some kind of conversation about generations, communication, and the changing nature of relationships is constantly hanging over the plot, but is never fully realized. Even the question of machismo – which is only portrayed in the most generic of displays – is left unanswered as the play spirals off in a different direction. Charles 1, 2, and 3 all age, grow apart, and generally remain rather unremarkable until their stories fizzle out without any kind of conclusion or closure.
But the strangest part is the bizarre second half. After having so firmly established the three characters – fathers and sons, Charleses all – the play suddenly introduces a whole hoard of new characters who live and die in each episodic scene of only a few minutes long, and whose purpose makes less and less sense as they get further away from the first three Charleses.
That being said, the actors did a good job with what they were given. Mike Shapiro masters every childhood developmental stage from infancy to shaving in the mirror with his father, and Fernando Gonzalez is the perfect broody young man reconciling his father figures with his own personality.
Charleses begins with a solid, if not generic, concept, but eventually stumbles over the ambiguity of the dialogue and the confusing character shifts. The original themes – manhood/masculinity, father/son relationship, communication, etc. – seem to fade, and the trajectory of the play becomes so aimless that it seems nothing but unfair to the audience.