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For people with disabilities who can mask their mobility issues, there comes an awkward moment in every dating relationship when you have to fess up.
My most memorable reveal happened at a hospital cafeteria on a second or third date. We’d been visiting his father, who had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. I went through the salad bar without thinking, realized my mistake and sat down across from him terrified to pick up a plastic knife and fork. Emotions and hormones were already blipping like a vital-sign monitor. And that’s when I looked up from a pile of cherry tomatoes and said I had something to tell him.
I had a stroke. No, not recently. I was a baby—only 9 months old—but I never regained full mobility on my left side. Yes, that’s why I limp. There’s also a lift in my shoe because my leg is too short. Yes. I’m still partially paralyzed. No, it doesn’t hurt.
We sat in silence for a minute. And then I awkwardly attempted to slice a cherry tomato perched on top of my salad. It shot across the cafeteria and rolled under someone else’s table.
“My god,” he said. “You can’t even cut a tomato, can you?”
I felt a rush of relief and a surge of something like love. This is what I’d been waiting for, for someone to observe my body so closely he’d see all my imperfections.
If only I had seen Ryan J. Haddad’s play, Hi, Are You Single? when I was 23, I might have known better.
It would take a few more dates, a funeral, and several therapy sessions for me to understand that his “you-can’t-even” reaction was actually a criticism, one of many that drove down my self-esteem like a tent peg into impressionable ground. A compassionate response from someone worth dating would have been, “Hey, thanks for being vulnerable and sharing with me. Do you ever need help cutting food?”
The tomato debacle has been on my mind since seeing Hi, Are You Single?, a deeply moving, uncomfortably funny one-man show about dating and disability now receiving its first full staging at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The writer and star has cerebral palsy. To be clear, my partial hemiplegia and other challenges related to stroke survivorship are different from the mobility issues faced by Haddad; he uses a walker and wears custom-molded plastic braces to support his atrophied calf muscles.
“The CP just limits the mobility in my legs and weakens my arms a little,” Haddad says, introducing himself to the audience. He stands, grips the walker with one hand and gestures below his torso. “But everything else is fine.”
When my braces came off at age six, I thought I was “fine” too. My well-meaning parents were relieved the visible reason for kids to mock me as “handicapped” was gone, and did not raise me to identify as disabled, as I do now. Haddad is 30, and though a child of the anti-bullying age, we both found ourselves belatedly processing quite a bit in college. For him, that meant navigating dating as a gay teen, and swiping right for frequent heartbreak.
“Suddenly I had to confront my cerebral palsy every time I talked to someone,” Haddad explains, in the second scene of Are You Single? “One time I told a guy online he wasn’t my type, and he said, ‘With all your problems, you’d be lucky to take whatever you can get!’”
Haddad turned the insults into art by carrying a video camera into Ohio gay bars and asking men if they were open to dating someone with a disability. Some men were nice, some were too drunk to be filmed and some responses made the final script, which Haddad first staged as a senior at Ohio Wesleyan University. He’s been tweaking it ever since under the guidance of director Laura Savia, including workshops at Williamstown Theatre Festival and a 2018 run at The Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival. Initial plans for a full production at Woolly were scuttled by the pandemic, although the theater did release a filmed version.
Woolly’s long-overdue complete staging proves high production values can elevate an already good one-actor show. Lighting designer Colin K. Bills tucked away bulbs all over the stage, allowing a sofa-and-chairs set by Lawrence E. Moten III to evoke a dozen different bar and bedroom scenes set in both Ohio and New York, where Haddad launched an acting career after college. (He’s a recurring character on Netflix’s The Politician.) All Haddad has to do is snap and a lighting cue takes us from Tuesday night in Hell’s Kitchen to Wednesday evening in the East Village.
Haddad makes for a “fabulous” (his word) bar-hopping companion: charming, funny, self-deprecating but not self-denigrating. Audience participation built into the show includes one lucky patron (who is tested in advance for COVID-19) coming onstage. Another gives an impromptu reading, and everyone can overshare about the last time they had an orgasm.
“Raise your hands. I know you’re horny. And you’re horny,” Haddad says, pointing at giggling patrons. The no-intermission show is well paced. Around the hour mark, Haddad becomes surprisingly introspective, asking not what makes his disability a dealbreaker for others, but what factors have made some men a dealbreaker for him. The problem is fear, he suspects, perhaps combined with years of movie-sex fantasies that led him to expect perfect performances from himself and his intimate partners.
“And what about you, darlings?” he asks. “What will you do the next time fear stops you from intimacy with someone new?”
That’s a potent question, one that takes his very specific dating situation and challenges anyone still on the lookout for a partner. The wrap-up is a touch pat and sentimental—as Haddad puts it, his “happy ending hasn’t happened yet.” But the search for a play that deals frankly with dating and disability? That’s finally over.
Hi, Are You Single, written and performed by Ryan J. Haddad, and directed by Laura Savia, runs at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company Center until April 10. woollymammoth.net. $15-$65.