Arts play review

Becoming a Man asks questions about life, love, and human connection

A memoir about a 50 year old man who is finally growing up

Title: Becoming a Man
Written by: P. Carl
Directed by: Diane Paulus and P. Carl
Location: Harvard Square Loeb Drama Center
Performance Dates: Feb. 21–March 10

Becoming a Man mixes biography, documentary, and humanity into a single unique theatrical experience. The play, based on the memoir of the same title, tells the story of the author P. Carl, a transgender man who transitioned in his fifties. It explores his relationships and personal growth during what Carl tells the audience was the “best and worst year of his life,” the period after he started taking testosterone and was able to live as a man completely for the first time.

The play has little plot, feeling more like a documentary of Carl’s life than a story or traditional narrative. This allows the artists more space to explore the relationships in Carl’s life. As the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) loves to remind audiences, their work is based on essential questions. The art they present wrestles with these complex topics and the director’s note reminds audience members to continue to ponder them on the way home. Becoming a Man asks “When we change, can the people we love come with us?” A.R.T. takes the questioning to a new level with their most recent work, as the first act includes the entirety of the 90-minute scripted play and the second act consists exclusively of a 20-minute audience conversation where audience members are asked to raise their hands and share their thoughts on the production based on guiding questions.

The play starts after Carl has been able to finally fully transition and shows the tension and stress that change creates for him and his loved ones. In a series of slice of life scenes and flashbacks to critical moments in his past, the audience is given a window into who Carl is. The highlight of the play is seeing the different relationships Carl has with his wife, best friend, parents, and past self as he fully embodies himself for the first time.

With stellar performances across the board, Petey Gibson (Carl) carries the show with his depth and range of emotion and character. Elena Hurst (Lynette, Carl’s wife) pulls at heartstrings, often coming off as more sympathetic than Carl with her emotionally wrought struggle to deal with her husband’s new life. Christopher Liam Moore (Carl’s father) and Stacey Raymond (Polly, Carl’s deadname) both also show up in big ways, making the entire show that much more believable and real. The only confusing choice is why Carl and Lynette are portrayed as in their mid-20s to 30s when the story places them in their 50s. It seems as though it would make the entire story that much more poignant to watch people no longer in their youth deal with these challenges of maturity and caring for each other.

The performance offers several different definitions for its title, “becoming a man.” Carl tells the audience that he considers the day he became a man to be the day he was not misgendered a single time. If you were to ask Carl’s therapist, she might say the entire play is about the process of Carl’s transitioning from a woman to the man he is. I think both the author and the audience know, however, that the true arc is Carl’s journey working to transition from a boy to a man. The play highlights insights into the challenges Carl faces from never having had the opportunity to be a teenage boy. From the loud shoes to the offhanded misogyny, the memoir component of the production gives the most cringe-worthy moments an air of self-reflection as Carl the playwright tells the audience of the failures of his boyish mid-fifties.

The connecting humanity that truly ties the performance together is the endless plea of each of the characters to be seen. While it is Lynette, Carl’s wife, who delivers the punchline “You aren’t seeing me” in one of their many marital fights, that frustration permeates the entire play. It ranges from Carl begging his wife to use his name, to Lynette asking how he didn’t realize his transition would impact her life too, to Polly desperately begging his mom to understand his mental health struggles. A more accurate essential question might be “How can we work to see each other?” That is what makes the story so compelling, as people from any identity and background can recognize in Carl’s journey the desperate need to be seen and loved as they are. It is the foundation of the human experience to reach out to our loved ones and ask them to see us as our true selves.

This production falls squarely into A.R.T.’s tradition of unexpected and unique theater. Bringing a brutal level of honesty to the story invites everyone to engage with, understand, and relate to Carl’s life. If you want a Disney movie, this might be as far as you can get, but if you want to spend your walk home wondering about how you balance your own needs with those of your loved ones, how to connect, how to love people the way they need, and how to understand life’s complex journeys, Becoming a Man is well worth the time.