‘Bathhouse.pptx’ Review: A Fever Dream, Both Poetic and Mystifying

‘Bathhouse.pptx’ Review: A Fever Dream, Both Poetic and Mystifying

In “Bathhouse.pptx,” Jesús I. Valles investigates the fading history of gay bathhouses, bringing to life both the marginalized people who reveled in them and the forgotten people who cleaned them. The play — selected as the winner of the 2023 Yale Drama Series Prize by Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”) — laces historical fantasy with melodic prose, loosely stringing together Valles’s ramblings like an epic fever dream. But if, like most such dreams, it’s far more captivating to the storyteller than to the audience, the work offers enough lyrical beauty to keep viewers listening, if not fully understanding, and yearning for more.

The story begins with an anxious 10th-grader whom Valles has called “Presenter” (Sam Gonzalez), a queer Latino student who is delivering a PowerPoint lecture (hence the title’s “.pptx”) about the history of bathing. Cleanliness, we are told, has dirty beginnings: It didn’t take long for humans to weaponize filth as a tool of shame against the poor and foreign. Presenter then tries to connect this to the topic he actually cares about: the commercialized bathhouse.

To do so, he elicits help from fellow students, but their presentation is derailed by unlikely apparitions: a conquistador, a small child, Laura Linney. To manage this unruliness in the play’s first half, the director, Chay Yew, over-relies on the same gimmick: Interlopers scurry out from the right or left side of the audience in a continuous loop. The act mirrors Valles’s spiraling language, but it’s repeated so often that we begin to anticipate the disruptions, rendering them less impactful.

Still, certain characters manage to stand out, including Chela (Claudia Acosta), an overworked cleaner at the North Hollywood spa that is the play’s other primary setting. Here, Chela has witnessed enemas, orgies and more — some of which we also witness. (The play acknowledges its theatricality by having the actors confess they aren’t teenagers performing these acts, but adults of consenting age.) But for Valles, Chela is more than just the help; she’s the winner in a daily “war of dirt and bleach and sickness and steam,” a paradox of service and control.

Like the rest of the dexterous six-person ensemble, Acosta plays several roles. But as Chela, she finds the tiny pockets of vulnerability, longing and humor that poke through this woman’s calloused personality. While the male strangers in the spa stumble into one another, sharing brief stories, desires and memories, Chela stands out as a fully realized character, embodying a depth that resonates beyond the surface. That Valles chose to honor the fullness of a Latina sanitation worker in a play so focused on Latino gay men does not seem incidental, but rather like a nod to those that even queer history overlooks.

Another nod to that hidden queer history is the high school itself, which sits on the former site of the bathhouse. You-Shin Chen’s set cleverly bridges the gap — the starkness of her classroom setting, with its bare walls and fluorescent lights, evoking sterility itself. That whiteness becomes a canvas for the hazy crimson, hot pink and indigo clouds that the lighting designer Reza Behjat uses during the bathhouse scenes.

Still, it’s hard to imagine any staging of “Bathhouse.pptx” that would make complete sense of Valles’s relentlessly abstract work, which is as rife with anecdotes you’ll never forget as with analogies you’ll never understand. It’s too intimately intertwined with Valles’s specific obsessions and anxieties about queer spaces to give over easily to any director or design team — a respectably ambitious effort, but ultimately an overreach.

Through April 22 at the Flea Theater, Manhattan; theflea.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

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