The day of the Tony Awards might seem a strange time to write about an Off-Off Broadway solo play, playing in a theater off Avenue B, with the downbeat title “I Squeezed Really Hard” (a reference to a suicide attempt.) It tells the story of the horrible childhood of a guy named Anthony Misiano. I saw it yesterday and it’s closing this afternoon.
But right before I sat down at the Wild Project to watch Misiano’s show, I read an essay written by seven-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein (nominated this year for Moulin Rouge.) Burstein asks, given all the problems in the world, why should anyone care that “Broadway is back.” Burstein knows first hand how serious things are – he almost died from COVID, and his wife Rebecca Luker did die, from a different disease.
But he answers: “theater isn’t just a form of entertainment; at its best, it is a collective, spiritual experience It is church for the heart and mind… The stories in Broadway’s theaters are a reflection of our nation’s soul and have the ability to heal our aching country.”
Burstein did slip there and do what people tend to do – treat “Broadway” and “theater” as if they’re exact synonyms. This seems more forgivable on the eve of the Tony Awards and the reopening of Broadway. But Tony Misiano’s Off-Off B play demonstrated for me the healing power of theater – wherever it is — in several ways.
“I Squeezed Really Hard,” is a staged memoir of Tony Misiano growing up from age five to 13 in an unstable, often violent and even ultimately criminal family, whose membership changes almost as frequently as his places of residence and his schools. He periodically presents the latest configuration, saying “This is my family now.” In and out of the picture are an abusive father, a bipolar drug-addicted mother, the mother’s grouchy female lover (who only serves boiled food), Tony’s grandmother (who burns all the food) a kindly stepfather with a mentally challenged son, and that boy’s abusive stepfather.
Misiano transforms this horror show into …a form of entertainment, through his skills as a mimic, a mime, and a humorist. Yes, the show is often funny, although it’s hard to communicate exactly how, since it’s more in the delivery than the writing. There’s the moment that his mother’s grouchy lover Dorothy snaps: “ Do you come with a volume button?” There’s his explanation for why he preferred his grandmother’s burnt food to Dorothy’s boiled fare. “Do you know what boiling does? It extracts all the nutrients and flavor out of whatever’s being boiled until all you have left is beige mush. This is a metaphor. Burning, is just a sign that you love, maybe a little too much.” There’s the scene in which his mother persuades him to get baptized because that’s what his kindly soon-to-be stepfather wants, even though Tony considers himself an atheist. He sets up the scene this way: “My mom pulls me into my room, locks the door and begins speaking to me with a tone and a face that is both incredibly nurturing and incredibly threatening. Like when a mobster sweet talks you but doesn’t blink.”
After demonstrating through his performance the healing power of theater, Tony Misiano then recounts it in his life. At age 13, for the middle school choir, he is cast – or rather, desperately volunteers – as the Genie in Aladdin. The choir master has come up with a cheesy way of introducing the song “A Whole New World,” by projecting the prior balcony scene on mute, with the students providing the voices of the characters.
Tony races home every day for two solid weeks to study the handful of lines. At the moment he gives the performance: “I hear a sound that I have never heard in my life, and I don’t know what it is, or why it sounds SO big, but it’s a sound I can only describe as two thousand of my peers erupting uncontrollably in laughter and applause. And it doesn’t hurt. It’s not a siren, or a gunshot, or the shattering of glass. It’s not a cry for help or a violent impact.
“… I AM baptized. Flowing THROUGH me, cleansing me of every painful thing. I am flooded with the sound of purest joy and approval. And I know in this very moment what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
The revelation that he wants to be an actor doesn’t change his home life, which gets shockingly worse.
But the play ends with Tony on his first day of high school, peeking into the school’s theater, seeing it full of “hyper-active, spazzy, eccentric little people, like me.” This, Tony tells us, “is my family now.”