Tuesday, March 08, 2016

"Straight" by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola - A MUST SEE at the Acorn Theater, Theater Row

Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola have written a three character play about sexuality that avoids stereotypes and invites the audience to consider sex and sexual identity in non-traditional ways. "Straight" is beautifully written, brilliantly directed by Andy Sandberg, and superbly acted by the trio of Jake Epstein, Jenna Gavigan and Thomas E. Sullivan.

The play opens and ends in awkwardness.  In the opening scene, Ben (Mr. Epstein) is sitting on his couch, with young Chris (Mr. Sullivan) occupying the other end of the sofa.  They have met on line and this is their first awkward face to face encounter, sipping beers and watching football. Macho monosyllabic dialogue ensues: "So," grunts Ben.  Chris retorts cleverly with his own tentative "So."
Fast forward to the other bookend - a moment at the end of the play that is well-conceived, perfectly directed and blocked, and acted by Mr. Epstein.  Fade to black.

Between these two bookend moments we are treated to a narrative of Ben, a 26 year-old successful financial professional (think Goldman Sachs or Bain Capital) who is in a long-term relationship with the lovely Emily, a Ph.D. student in genetic and bioinformatics research (Think Harvard, MGH or The Broad Institute).  They live separately in Boston, but she is pushing hard for them to move in together and take the next logical step in their relationship.  But the fly in the ointment is that Ben is surreptitiously exploring his "bi-curious" inclinations, and has meet Chris, a 20 year-old Boston College student.  What begins as a tentative on-line flirtation between Ben and Chris slowly evolves into a true friendship and love relationship.  But Ben also loves Emily.  What to do?

Primarily through conversations between Ben and Chris, the play explores whether having sexual feelings and occasional sexual acting out with a same sex partners necessitates one identifying oneself as gay. Are we more than the simple binary labels that society loves to stick on us? Ben is content to have it both ways, until Emily pushes hard for a decision about moving in together, and Chris foresees what that would mean for his relationship with Ben.  As I mentioned above, the writing avoids gay stereotyping, except for the times when it parodies stereotypes.   At one point, Chris coquettishly morphs into a pseudo-flamboyant queen and intones: "Not every gay guy, like, burps glitter."

Mr. Epstein is rock steady as the conflicted Ben.  We see him grow from experimental flirtation with Chris to a real and mutually needy relationship with the young man, all the while trying to keep Emily in the dark, but emotionally and sexually satisfied.  The juggling act seems to work - that is until Emily walks in on Ben and Chris one morning, and the three of them share an awkward breakfast together.  That tension-filled scene is one of the most powerful in the play, and I would have wanted more scenes like it.  My one criticism of this drama is that I would have preferred to see more time with the three characters on stage together, and the character of Emily fleshed out more fully.  Ms. Gavigan is lovely and winsome as Emily, and it is clear why Ben would be in love with her.  What is less clear is why she is drawn to Ben despite him giving her so little of himself. More exploration and exposition of these issues would make this an even stronger play.

But I quibble, for the overall effect of "Straight" is stunning in its power and nuance.  Mr. Sullivan is a recent Tisch graduate, and is making his Off-Broadway debut.  It is my understanding that this role will earn him his Equity card.  Yet he commands the stage like a Broadway veteran - his timing, physical presence, his mastery of myriad facial expressions and his overall charisma and vulnerability signal the beginning of a long and spectacularly successful career. By the end of the play, every audience member had fallen in love with him and his character. He has a way - with Ben, with Emily and with audience members - of gently luring us into his gossamer web of seduction.

Jake Epstein as Ben
Thomas E. Sullivan as Chris
Acorn Theater
Through May 8th

This troika of fine actors are supported by a creative team that includes a gorgeous set by Charlie Corcoran.  As a Bostonian, how could I not be enamored of a set that features, on the living room wall of what looks like a very nice Back Bay apartment, a framed Tom Brady #12 jersey!  Costumes by Michael McDonald help to define each of the three characters, Lighting by Grant Yeager signals the shifting moods, as does subtle Sound Design by Alex Hawthorn.

One litmus test I apply to all plays that I see is to ask myself the question: "Do I care about what happens to each character?"  In this case, I care very much.  In fact, I am hoping for a sequel that will tell me what adventures and misadventures these three human beings may share in the next chapters of their lives.

New Yorkers, there is no excuse of not going straight to the link below and ordering your tickets to "Straight," which will run at the Acorn Theater at Theater Row on 42nd St. through May 8th.  Bostonians, this play is worth making a trip to the Big City.  Boston has invaded 42nd Street with this great set and action set in the Hub.

Straight website



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