Theater Review: “Becoming a Man” — Making a Statement

By Bill Marx

If only Becoming a Man‘s pathos were less streamlined, its theatricality more ambitious.

Becoming a Man by P. Carl, adapted from his memoir of the same name. Directed by Diane Paulus and P. Carl. Staged by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through March 10.

Petey Gibson (Carl), Elena Hurst (Lynette), and Stacey Raymond (Polly) in American Repertory Theater’s world premiere production of Becoming a Man. Photo: Nile Scott Studios and Maggie Hall

In an interview in the Boston Globe, A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus says that both P. Carl’s “memoir and the play [Becoming a Man] pose the question: ‘When we change, can the people we love come with us?'” I have not read P. Carl’s best-selling book, but the world premiere of his stage version answers that question — raised by his female-to-male transition — with earnest dispatch. Becoming a Man has been constructed to make a statement, to assert the humanity of the trans community, and the production delivers the message with a few welcome bits of complication. If only the show’s pathos were less streamlined, its theatricality more ambitious.

In this world premiere production, Becoming a Man has been given a cinematic approach, including flickers of docudrama. Short scenes make their point and are then given a kick in the pants. (The minimal set is movie-friendly; the characters are dwarfed by large images projected on screens set at an angle behind them.) Storytelling economy has its merits — the 90-minute production moves at an agreeably quick clip. But the price is to smooth out the drama’s emotional highs and lows. Carl tells us that his courageous decision, made at the age of 50, was a matter of “life and death.” But the despair doesn’t stick around too long; it is as if the pain is an autobiographical inconvenience. Tellingly, the evening’s most compelling scene spotlights the exhilaration of empowerment: it is a memorable image — connected with swimming — of having become comfortable in your own skin.

Elsewhere, the dialogue underlines the life lesson that is being taught at this point in the protagonist’s psychological journey. We get therapeutic bromides rather than illumination. Exchanges between Carl and a trans friend, between his “new” and “old” self (named Polly), could have wandered into far wilder and deeper territory: rage, lust, love, politics, fantasy, etc. Instead, we are supplied a succession of didactic pokes at a self-involved Carl, stuff he needs to wise up about — such as how to deal with the appeal of toxic masculinity — if he wants to succeed at his quest of “becoming a man.” (By the way, what is considered healthy masculinity these days?) There is also a puzzling thinness of characterization among those who love Carl. His parents (residents of Elkhart, Indiana) are underdeveloped, especially Carl’s abusive gambler of a father. Did he accept his child’s transformation amicably? It is hard to tell — he seems to be reasonably understanding, as is Carl’s therapist mother. But we are given no confrontations, no questioning of choices.

Becoming a Man comes into its own as drama when it probes the troubled relationship between Carl and his wife, Lynette. What had initially been a lesbian marriage became something different once Carl made his gender transition (a process he began without consulting Lynette). Both people are trying to make sense of themselves (and each other) in this challenging new arrangement. Here is where the script comes closest to taking on Paulus’s pertinent question — the response seesaws between two compelling and clashing points of view. Elena Hurst gives a strong performance as Lynette, exuding a mix of anger, yearning, love, frustration, and uncertainty. Petey Gibson is far better at conveying Carl’s growing sense of confidence than his frailty. The other five cast members lend able assistance, but their roles are too skimpy (including Stacey Raymond’s Polly) to add much dramatic heft. It was a pleasure to see Christopher Liam Moore, whom I reviewed decades ago as a member of Bill Rauch’s marvelous Cornerstone Theatre Company.

Act II turns out to be a rebranding of the traditional postperformance “talkback.” The night I attended associate director Lyam B. Gabel facilitated the 20-minute conversation, asking audience members what moments they found to be the most memorable in the production. The responses were predictably positive, at times moving, ranging from comments about the power of wearing high heels and sneakers to the joys of having supportive parents and the validating impact of viewing the trans experience presented so sympathetically on stage. There was one particularly revealing exchange: a person remarked on the maturity of P. Carl when he made the decision to initiate the transformation. Do kids considering gender transition, some asking for surgery at the age of 10 or 11, have the same presence of mind? Gabel answered that Becoming a Man was not about surgery, but a dramatization of one person’s experience. P. Carl was writing about the trans “aura,” referring to the term that Walter Benjamin (alluded to in the play) used in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

That is all well and good, but words have unpredictable resonances. Benjamin defined “aura” as a work of art’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” A Marxist cultural critic (granted, one that marched to the drum of his own dialectic), he envisioned the social value of art from a communist perspective. He was also a Jew, and committed suicide while he was fleeing Nazi-occupied France in 1940. American drama habitually centers on domestic relationships, focusing on the family, either functional or dysfunctional. But “the place where we happen to be” right now is that many American states are passing laws hostile to the trans community, legislation that is about curtailing rights, freedom, and access to health care. Whisk this production of Becoming a Man out of the coddled confines of Harvard University and place it in parts of Texas or Florida — it is not hard to guess what the “mixed” response would be. Yes, it is vital that trans individuals be seen, their humanity acknowledged. But it is just as important that our theaters reflect, in dramatically complex ways, a collective struggle, the efforts of nascent movements around the country to protect the vulnerable by calling out oppressive power and proffering imaginative alternatives.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Amy Merrill on February 28, 2024 at 7:13 pm

    I just saw this performance, though, didn’t stay for the talkback. I agree with this thoughtful review.
    The performance was clear and moved briskly. I longed for more confusion. Perhaps we could have seen more of Carl and Lynette’s earlier life. Also, at one point, Carl says he wants to be a “good man.” I would have liked to know what that meant to him.

  2. Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 28, 2024 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks. Yes, the idea of a “good man” is mentioned in the play but not defined. Now that would make a fascinating script — what is non-toxic masculinity?

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