Jackie Mason is all the reminder anyone needs of the long tradition of putting stand-up comedy on the theatrical stage and calling it theater. But stand-up comedy by any other name is still stand-up, and that is what Don Reed performs in his autobiographical one-man show, "East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player," at New World Stages, the theater complex where Mr. Mason's latest show is running just down the hall.
Mr. Reed, who wrote and directs "East 14th," has assembled his narrative from recollections of growing up black and poor in 1970s Oakland, Calif., where his divorced parents' lives put him in opposing worlds. His conservative mother was a Jehovah's Witness, and hers was a rule-bound household. His libertine father was a pimp who laid down only one law for his sons: "Be yourself."
Mr. Reed slips lithely in and out of those characters and others as he explains how, at 15, weary of knocking on doors every Sunday morning to proselytize with his stepfather, he left his mother's house to move in with his father and two older half-brothers.
"Maybe I shoulda' stayed where I was," Mr. Reed says. "I'd gone to the other extreme." That's what he says in the script, anyway; this being stand-up, what he said onstage Friday night was a reasonably close variation on the same sentiment.
But the story Mr. Reed tells is ultimately a paean to his father, and any hint of mixed feelings about the move is quickly obliterated by the full-hearted admiration he feels for him. This isn't blind adoration; he sees the older man's faults. But he sees just as clearly the unwavering confidence his father had in him, and his determination that his son was "gon' be somebody."
With prostitution as one of its main themes, this isn't G-rated fare by any means, but the core of "East 14th" is a sweet story, and it aims to be uplifting. As Mr. Reed puts it, "You know they say it takes a village to raise a child — but sometimes ... it takes a ghetto to raise a man." That line elicited an affirmative "Mmm" from a good portion of the audience, which was a more racially heterogeneous crowd than Midtown theaters tend to attract.
So it's unfortunate that this curiously retro piece, whose aesthetic so reflects the era in which it's set that it feels toothless 30 years on, too often sets its sights on the lowest common denominator and goes too frequently for the easy laugh. The most egregious of these cheap shots — which are strangely in conflict with his father's "Be yourself" mantra — come at the expense of one of Mr. Reed's half-brothers, to whom he refers throughout as "my gay brother Tony." But they get big laughs.
Mr. Reed, who has a decades-long résumé as an actor and stand-up comedian, isn't engaged in a cynical enterprise here, but it's an enterprise that is probably doomed to mediocrity unless he hires a director other than himself. To judge by the script, he is perfectly comfortable with dropping chunks of his show (sometimes at the expense of the narrative) even as he adds and embellishes, so willingness to change isn't an issue. A good director could push him to go further than he goes on his own, to get a tighter focus, to eliminate the patches of listlessness that slow the show.
As it stands, "East 14th," which is as much about a son honoring his father as it is about a father honoring his son, doesn't do the old man proud enough.
Open run (340 W. 50th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues, 212-239-6200).