It’s easy to take a healthy body for granted, to assume free and easy access to basic aspects of city life like sidewalks, buses, public bathrooms and even online dating. But the actor-playwright Ryan J. Haddad challenges our assumptions in his thoughtful, diverting new play “Dark Disabled Stories,” which opened Thursday at the Public Theater and runs through April 2.
The mission of inclusion begins from the start, when Alejandra Ospina wheels up to a desk at the side of the stage and begins her work as a Describer, verbalizing details of the set as well as the physical actions of the other two performers, for the benefit of those with vision challenges. Haddad’s script includes some oversharing for the Describer — the back wall is not merely pink, but “Benjamin Moore Island Sunset pink” — that underscores one of the show’s main themes: how making theater accessible in a deliberate way can enhance the experience of all theatergoers.
Haddad appears on stage with a walker for balance, and his actions are shadowed by Dickie Hearts, a deaf actor wearing a matching sweater with “Ryan” printed on the front, who signs Haddad’s speech in American Sign Language and collaborates with him on a series of set pieces about life as a physical outsider.
While the show’s dark title threatens tragedy, the stories that Haddad relates are more about the looming threat of calamity and the humiliation that can come from needing the assistance of others, even strangers, to meet the challenges of everyday living. What may be an inconvenience to many of us carries a heavier burden for others — the inoperable elevator at a subway station, the accessible bathroom that you have to weave a walker through a crowded restaurant to reach, the parked car blocking the bus stop so the ramp can’t be lowered. (While the able-bodied are encouraged to offer assistance, Haddad reminds us that he knows his body and what help he needs better than you do.)
Haddad also isn’t shy about the intricacies of dating life as a gay man with cerebral palsy whose use of hookup apps like Grindr can lead to sticky situations, like the time a date collected half of the brunch bill and then simply walked out of the restaurant, knowing that Haddad would be unable to give chase. “I think a lot of people assume if you have a disability that you’re vulnerable and gullible, which clearly I was in this case,” he explains with typical candor and self-reproach.
Horniness can cloud the judgment of many adults, but the consequences can be more severe for some. Hearts, a gay man with an admitted kinky streak, recalls a hookup with a Utah cop who wanted to use real handcuffs — which prevented Hearts from deploying a safe word or communicating at all during their encounter. Despite the risks, Hearts relishes these dalliances: “Since many men don’t understand my signing, sex is a way for me to connect.”
And ultimately, “Dark Disabled Stories” is a show about forging connections, including intimate ones, and building empathy for those who experience the world differently and meeting them on their own terms. And Haddad strikes a tone that challenges the audience without ever rising to anger or bitterness. His mission is building awareness, not guilt, and reminding us that even those with 20/20 vision have their blind spots.