Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Dark Disabled Stories

Theatre Review by Wendy Caster - March 9, 2023

Dickie Hearts and Ryan J. Haddad
Photo by Joan Marcus
The press invitation to the The Bushwick Starr's open-hearted, funny, and smart Dark Disabled Stories, by Ryan J. Haddad and now onstage at Public Theater, offers detailed guidance on writing about disability, along with links and email addresses for further information. It goes on to say:

  • INTEGRATED ACCESS at DARK DISABLED STORIES is an experiment in accessible theater and integrated access. Each performance–not specific special performances, but all of them–feature ASL performance, captioning, audio description, and relaxed performance conventions that are built into the show. Instead of individual people listening to audio description on headphones or having captioning or ASL interpretation separate from the production itself or only provided on certain nights, these elements are baked into the show both aesthetically and functionally. Access is not an afterthought or something the production team scrambled to put together at the end, but something that has been a part of the show since the beginning.
  • The most radical manifestation of access involves making this experience available to the largest number of people possible. The integrated access in this production serves as an attempt to do this, but we know that not all of these components may serve every audience member. If you have questions about certain ways that access shows up in DARK DISABLED STORIES, we encourage you to reach out to us.

The integrated access is fabulous. As well as meeting the needs of disabled audience members, it provides a multifaceted theatrical performance with each form of communication supplementing and complementing the others.

In this world premiere production, Dark Disabled Stories centers around the stories of Ryan, described in the script as "Late twenties. Gay man with cerebral palsy." Ryan is played by disabled actor Ryan J. Haddad and by Deaf actor Dickie Hearts, who points out a couple of times that he is an actor, not an interpreter–and a damn good one, as it happens. While Haddad leans toward stand-up-type acting, Hearts provides a full performance–subtle, warm, funny and charming, particularly during the section of the play that features his story rather than Ryan's. The third performer, Alejandra Ospina, plays "The Describer: A dry, feisty woman in a motorized wheelchair or scooter." She also tells an infuriating tale of trying to get around in the New York City subway system, where elevators are frequently broken and up-to-date information can be impossible to come by. You can feel her frustration and anger as she talks about not being able to fulfill obligations and responsibilities to other people because she cannot get where she wants to go.

Early on, Ryan tells us, "Now, if you're gonna look at me as sad or pitiable... If you came here to pity me, you can leave." There is nothing pitiable about Ryan, and it's easy to feel his pride and his hatred of being condescended to. But, in a show that touts its 360-degree accessibility, is asking audience members to leave not a weird non-accessible choice? Do Haddad and company only want to be preaching to the choir?

Much of Dark Disabled Stories focuses on Ryan's and Dickie's adventures hooking up with men, often strangers. These stories are mostly very funny, particularly with Haddad's wry writing and acting. However, while the ways in which those men are inconsiderate idiots are particular to Ryan's and Dickie's situations (e.g., leaving Ryan across a crowded bar from his walker, refusing to learn the sign language alphabet to communicate with Dickie), in general the stories are familiar tales of pick-ups being dicks.

At one point, Dickie finds himself in Utah, where he allows himself to end up handcuffed by a stranger who has made him feel uneasy and unsafe and who has avoided establishing a safe word. He tells the story slowly and dramatically, with growing tension. Then, as he realizes that the stranger has total power over him, he says to the audience, "And you know what? [really, long pause] It's fun. And it's fucking hot." Since Dark Disabled Stories is so embracing of people's needs, where does this story fit in? For those in the audience who have experienced physical and sexual violence, it is a difficult, creepy, painful story to sit through, and the punchline does not mitigate that. Do our needs matter less? (And, no, I'm not kink-shaming. Once the stranger refuses a safe word, this story moves out of the realm of kink.)

The rest of the show is frequently fascinating and often funny, though the topics often aren't. Day after day, the performers must navigate a world conspicuously indifferent to their needs, not to mention dealing with people who can be breathtakingly inconsiderate and thoughtless, even when they mean well. The most interesting stories to me are those in which Ryan has to explain that he needs less help or a particular sort of treatment, as in this speech to a TSA agent:

If you let me go through the body scanner it will make the pat-down go a lot faster. I know I'm in this wheelchair, it's an airport wheelchair, I'm using it for distance and speed. But I'm holding this walker in my hands. I can walk. Yes, I can walk. Please listen to me. Please. I know what I'm doing. I know how to live in this body. I know what is safe for me and what isn't. I know you think you know, but you don't know. You don't know."

Most of Dark Disabled Stories ultimately centers on people not listening and not recognizing each other's humanity. The show depicts this vividly in a worthwhile 75 minutes in the theatre.

Dark Disabled Stories
Through April 2, 2023
Public Theater
Shiva Theater, 1954 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: