Gold and Fool’s Gold: Aurora Theatre’s “Palomino”

David Cale as Kieran McGrath in Palomino

David Cale portrays Kieran McGrath in Aurora Theatre's "Palomino." (Photo: David Allen)

David Cales’ one-man show, Palomino, which just opened at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, is certainly engaging, and it contains moments of real insight and empathy.  Also in its favor is that it attempts to be an actual play: Palomino isn’t documentary theater (a genre I’ve come to dread, despite having seen a worthwhile example once) or an autobiographical confessional.  The clearly talented Cale, writer, director, and sole cast member, portrays five characters (the official count is seven, but two are so peripheral as to not really count), two male and three female.  Each is well-wrought, humorous, and occasionally moving.  One in particular, the Australian ex-pat society matron and lonely widow Vallie, breathes with a life of her own.  The problem is that the play doesn’t add up:  Cale’s ending seems tacked on and rather desperate. A new character, Edward, a British publisher, suddenly emerges to tell us the two main characters’ entirely unsatisfying denouements. It’s Edward who then gets the dramatic resolution in Palomino, and he doesn’t deserve it.

Cale’s play begins with Kieran McGrath, a young, good-looking Irishman adrift in New York, who’s a Central Park carriage driver, ferrying tourists around behind his striking Palomino horse.  An older woman takes a ride one day and makes him an irresistible offer: She’ll pay him thousands of dollars to escort and sleep with rich older women.  “You’ll be my pimp?” he asks.  She answers in the affirmative.  Since Kieran also aspires to be a writer, he agrees, figuring he’ll get some great material out of it.  (The setup is unfortunately reminiscent of a horrible 1987 movie, The Women’s Club, with Michael Paré as the gigolo cum scriptor.)  His lucrative trysts serve him well, and he has a caring, intimate way with clients that guarantees his popularity.  But it’s Vallie who proves fondest of him, discovering depths of sensual pleasure and passion she didn’t know she possessed, once she allows herself to overcome her initial mortification.  It’s Vallie, too, who causes the most complicated responses in Kieran, when she proves unafraid to ask for more than he’s willing to give.

Vallie lives in splendor on the fortune left to her by her art collecting, jazz club-owning husband, who died five years previous.  She volunteers and fund-raises for various charities to fill the time, and she’s in a holding pattern, unable to risk moving forward with her life.  Kieran, though, awakens her dormant desire, and she comes to care for him, even while knowing that there’s something adolescent and unreal in this relationship, that it can’t last.  Kieran agrees to accompany her on a final trip together to Malta, and it’s from there that he leaves her, to make a new life for himself in England.  He can’t handle the realness of Vallie, the fact that there might be something more in their relationship than sex, and he has to flee.  It’s in Malta as well that Vallie begins to come to terms with the lingering grief of her husband’s death, and it’s Cale’s best moment as both an actor and a writer.

All of Palomino’s characters are essentially rootless: Irish, English, Australian, drifting between continents.  Cale uses extensive bird imagery (Kieran describes himself as a bird forever floating, hovering, unable to land), and a primary object in the play is a drawing of a white bird that Kieran talks Vallie into giving to him.  The artwork ends up coming home to Vallie in an unexpected way.

Gifted as Cale is, he doesn’t always do enough to embody the physical differences among his characters.  When performing a monologue, he uses his body well and convincingly, but he essentially physically differentiates only between his male and female characters.  The women tend to move alike, as do the men.  And his Commonwealth accents can start to sound the same, especially when he’s performing a dialog between two characters.  (You can lose track of who’s saying what if you don’t pay close attention.)  There are two other female roles Cale portrays, Ruby: another client, whose primary function is to remind us that Kieran is indeed a gigolo as his relationship with Vallie deepens, and Trish, a young Englishwoman Kieran has a tryst with while accompanying Vallie on a trip to California.  Both are compelling in and of themselves, but Vallie and Kieran are the center of Palomino, and these two stories seem like side trips.

As a writer, Cale has a talent for telling details (when Vallie first has sex with Kieran, it’s on the floor of her living room, and she’s surprised to discover a long-lost coffee cup under one of the sofas), and he understands the complications inherent in all human interactions: motives are never either wholly pure or wholly meretricious, perhaps the most essential thing for a chronicler of human beings to understand.

In many ways, what Cale is striving for here is similar to what Lily Tomlin and playwright Jane Wagner achieve in Tomlin’s brilliant one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Both shows feature the surprising connections among a group of fully realized characters, but Wagner’s script is superbly plotted with a rock-solid structure.  Cale’s story gets diverted onto wandering paths away from its center.  Trish’s story, though interesting and even moving, is a detour to a dead end.   But it’s Edward’s appearance and the use Cale puts him to, that’s the real failure of the play.

Years after Malta, Kieran tries to sell his memoirs to Edward, who happens to have a connection to Vallie, and he recognizes that Kieran’s manuscript is her story as well.  Thus it’s Edward, a character we barely know, who tells us how both Kieran and Vallie have fared.  Worse yet, it’s Edward’s own story that concludes the play, despite his not having earned our interest the way Vallie and Kieran have.  But Cale’s greatest artistic sin is to have an acquaintance of Edward’s (and Kieran’s, as it turns out) sum Kieran’s character up in a single epithet — “asshole” — in literally the penultimate sentence of the play.  We, and Cale, would not have spent so much time with Kieran if he were merely an asshole.  It’s an insult to Kieran, to the audience, and to Cale’s own work.

Unlike Kieran’s golden horse, Palomino, despite some striking moments and Cale’s obvious talent, doesn’t take you where you want to go.

Palomino plays from now until December 5 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA.  For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit http://www.auroratheatre.org.