April 13, 2016

"Straight" Probes the Zigzags of Modern Love

Now that transgender people are popping up on TV shows ("Transparent," "Orange is the New Black") in plays (Hir, Southern Comfort) and even on fashion runways (click here), the one muted letter remaining in LGBT, is the B, which stands for bisexual. 

Coming out as "Bi" still doesn't rack up points in either the gay or straight communities. And that's one of the reasons, I was so intrigued by Straight, the new play about a man reluctant to define his sexual choices that is playing at The Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row through May 8.

Straight starts off in typical sitcom/romcom mode. Ben, a financial analyst; and Emily, a biology grad student, have been dating since college but live in separate apartments. They're a supportive and affectionate couple. She makes sure he eats regularly. He listens to her complaints about the lab. They canoodle comfortably.

But as their friends have begun to marry off, Emily has become angsty about their future. She wants them to at least live together. What she doesn't know, and what's initially played as farce, is that Ben likes living alone because he's also secretly dating Chris, a 20 year-old male college student, with whom he has hot sex.

Comedy is supposed to ensue as Ben tries to keep Chris and Emily apart. But Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, who are credited as the co-authors of Straight, have something else in mind. Ben falls in love with Chris but he's unable to end things with Emily. It's partly that he thinks life would be easier for a heterosexual couple but it's also that he loves her.

And then there's the fact that he doesn't want to identify as totally gay in the way that's easy for Chris to do or as completely straight in the way that Emily needs him to be. He just wants to follow his heart but he isn't sure that society will let him do it.

Ben's dilemma isn't new to the stage. The British playwright Mike Bartlett dealt with it in his superb play Cock back in 2012 (click here for my review) but the question remains relevant in these say-it-loud-say-it-proud gender fluid times: what to do with someone who just wants to be label free?

The Straight playwrights' answer is a little didactic. To underscore Ben's discomfort in the queer world, they make him a bro who loves basketball and beer. To bring in the fact that sexual orientation is predetermined, they make Emily's specialty biogenetics. And then they attempt to drive home both sides of the argument in a long, boozy debate between Ben and Chris.

Still, under the unfussy direction of Andy Sandberg, the three-member cast does a fine job of making you feel for each member in this romantic triangle. Most of the praise has gone to Thomas E. Sullivan, a recent NYU grad, who scores in the flashiest role as the witty and sexy Chris.

But I also have some love for Jake Epstein, who played Gerry Goffin opposite Jessie Mueller's Carole King in Beautiful and who is lovely here as a guy increasingly heartsick over the knowledge that he must hurt at least one person he loves.

Some critics have complained that the play is outdated. But the choice Ben finally makes caused several people at the performance I attended to cry out in dismay. A play that provokes such a visceral response deserves to be seen.

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