Is Jayden Key Houston theater’s next Jim Parsons?
The first time I saw the actor Jayden Key, he was kneeling in the hot, dry grass of a park in downtown Houston, smiling through Texas sweat, eyes as painterly blue and hair as immaculate blond as a World War II-era German propaganda poster child.
It was summer 2017 on a weeknight, a quarter hour before the start of Horsehead Theatre’s production of Young Jean Lee’s “Church.” He introduced himself to me and my guest not as actor Jayden Key but as Reverend Jayden Key, the newest member of a strange, smiling congregation. When we asked him questions, he talked about where he was from, explained how he joined the church and espoused tenets that oscillated between mainstream Southern Baptist and Jim Jones craziness.
Through sheer improvisatory skill, or perhaps by simply staring us down with his doe eyes, he managed, over our five-minute chat, to convince my guest that we were not at a theater show but about to be indoctrinated into a cult. When he walked away, my guest turned to me and asked, “What the hell have you gotten us into?”
It was the most perceptive reaction possible to a Jayden Key performance. These are questions evoked not just by Reverend Jayden but by Key’s subsequent roles in Houston, which range from a modern-day boy who dresses as a Roman centurion and makes love to his fake brother (“Leap and the Net Will Appear”) to a postapocalyptic entertainer flipping us the bird while dressed as Ernie from “Sesame Street” (“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play”).
Key is 20 years old. His latest role, at the Catastrophic Theatre as Wesley in Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” (running at the MATCH through Oct. 21), suggests he could be the most interesting actor working in Houston. Recently, an actor told me Key might be the new Jim Parsons — the next Texan-born, baby-faced, avant-garde performer whose strength lies not in gravitas but in raw, green, renewable energy.
The role of Wesley is a conundrum. “Curse,” Shepard’s 1977 precursor to the better and better-known “Buried Child,” pretends it’s a typical, sweaty-twisty-teary domestic drama upholding the traditions of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. But “Curse” isn’t a naturalistic play. Wesley’s less an acting role than a physical feat, an act of performance art.
When Wesley first appears, he enshrines himself upon the kitchen table of his lower-class rural farmhouse. Under director Jeff Miller’s interpretation, Key looks like Isaac on the altar. But his dialogue sounds straight out of Williams Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” another mythological Southern Gothic in which the banal is upended by a more traumatized plane of reality.
Just look at what Key does on stage. His back facing the audience, he takes out his penis and urinates onto the stage. Later, he shows up entirely nude, face filled with dark energy, and saunters across stage. When Key returns, he explains that he had dug up his father’s old clothes, put them on, then butchered a lamb, whose mutilated body he holds in his hands (the dead lamb is the only effect in the play that isn’t real).
I’ve never seen actual urine onstage. It was a jaw-dropping, if ultimately inoffensive, stunt. Meanwhile, frontal nudity is rare but not unseen (Key’s was the third naked man I’ve seen in Houston theater since summer 2016). But then — then Key truly tested our stomachs. In the final act, Wesley has a mental breakdown and opens the family fridge.
Key’s body trembles. He chomps at a bell pepper, green spit-filled chunks flying out of his mouth with the crackling noise of a boot crunching in snow. He shoves down wet ham. He produces a jar of mayonnaise, positions his right hand like a dolphin at SeaWorld, then plunges it into that white, sticky, oily, frothy condiment. He smears the mayo into his mouth and over his face. He squirts mustard, then ketchup, straight down his throat. He wields a cucumber as large as his arm, dips it into the mayonnaise and gets to eating this pornographic creation. He has been defiled.
So have we. Key manages to indoctrinate us into a ritual of shock and taboo. There is only one thing left to say. Jayden Key, blond-haired, blue-eyed actor who looks like he was born after Twitter: What the hell have you gotten us into?