Straight

by Marcus Scott

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 8, 2016

Jake Epstein and Thomas E. Sullivan
Jake Epstein and Thomas E. Sullivan  

It's a question of lust in "Straight," Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola's sex comedy about a bizarre bisexual love triangle gone awry now playing at the Acorn Theater.

The play follows Ben (played by Jake Epstein), a beer-guzzling, sports watching 26-year-old investment banker operating out of Boston. Ben lives the stereotypically heterosexual lifestyle of a bachelor in his one-bedroom post-war apartment, much to the chagrin of his longtime girlfriend, Emily (Jenna Gavigan), a Ph.D. candidate in genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics researching nature versus nurture with dreams of changing the world. Charlie Corcoran's metropolitan set -- amplified with sky blue walls, tinges of pastel, hardwood floors, and exposed brick -- merges seamlessly with Grant Yeager's warm lighting.

After five years of dating (they met in a cappella recitals and became close after dealing with various trials and tribulations), Ben takes it upon himself to undertake his veiled constant cravings and invites over Chris (Thomas E. Sullivan), a high-spirited, concupiscent, ruefully boozy and openly gay 20-year-old college student whom emotionally enchants Ben and fulfills his carnal desires. Needless to say, as the months roll by and as the two continue their affair, Ben gradually indicates a requisite for something more. But is Ben willing to waive with his closeted status and start anew with Chris or stick to the rivers and stay with Emily?

The fundamental moral here not that being homosexual is not acceptable, rather if the universal collective could one day overcome society's reluctance in the ongoing fight for the acquiescence of sensual flexibility and sexual fluidity. It is not a period piece meant to tackle whether or not being LGBT is essentially against God and the betterment of mankind; by and large, that train of thought is for the massive pileup of demagogues, despots, Bible-thumpers and chauvinists still clinging on to pre-war 1950s-era segregated Americana.

However in Elmegreen and Fornarola's script, which examines internalized homophobia in the epoch approaching Obergefell v. Hodges, is a somewhat scathing cross-examination of the nature of deception; should we choose to make those we hold dear exultant by distancing our desires, does that ultimately mean dividing us from our own happiness and secretly enveloping them in our own private hell?

Unlike Jerry Herman or Harvey Fierstein's "La Cage aux Folles," there is no outburst of glittering fury or unbridled self-acceptance. This is a work of art that is meant to convey any signifiers or significance to young audience members struggling with their coming out, but rather to provide confront why so many people, autonomous cosmopolitan young white men especially (as the playwriting duo will have you believe), do not.

After all, LGBT young men and women are still attacked for broadcasting public displays of affection. G.O.P. members have publicly spoken out against same-sex marriage while business titleholders are declining LGBT couples for services like bridal ceremonies and homeownership; not to mention a racially segregated gay and lesbian community that insists on equal rights and respect for its urbanity while whitewashing and stigmatizing those who do not inherit certain fetishized qualities praised by pornography and popular culture.

In fact, unlike its title, the playwrights fail to find a solution and deliberately provide zero unblemished remedies. In doing so, it is a success, although it would benefit from a very calculated told-you-so approach if they had played with the structure of the story, perhaps weaving the narrative as if the stains of genetic code instead of a less straight-forward approach? After all, it's the only thing that's straight about this show. Well, that and the dismal, sixes-and-sevens optics of the sole woman of the play, proving that many of today's male playwrights should observe women in their natural habits (eavesdrop on conversations, study their habits, appreciate more theatre by women) before putting pen to paper, ultimately creating idealized chrysalis shells of would-be humans.

In this case, the show fails the Bechdel test, as Emily's lone purposefulness seems that her research allows the playwrights to argue hetero-flexibility, bisexual erasure, sexual autonomy, the heterosexual-homosexual continuum, behavioral epigenetics and biological determinism, juxtaposing philosophies that would otherwise feel moot with only Ben and Chris (who studies history) at the helm.

With dialogues surrounding stereotypes, masculinity and sexual orientation and machismo, as Ben and Chris become more intimate and Ben's relationship with Emily begins to fracture as inquiries of moving in and marriage become part of their daily discussions. With little to draw upon, Gavigan produces a warm and heartfelt performance, especially with a jaw-dropping last-ditch plot twist that could polarize skeptics (no doubt, thanks to off-Broadway hot-shot director Andy Sandberg).

As Ben, the play's central character, Jake Epstein (who made a name for himself as a bipolar musician Jake Epstein on the Canadian TV coming-of-age drama "Degrassi: A Next Generation" and earned praise for originating the role of hit-maker Gerry Goffin in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) personifies the noncommittal All-American masc-4-masc cliché with pitch perfect bravado.

But neither Gavigan nor Epstein holds a candle to Thomas E. Sullivan, a recent graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, now making his off-Broadway debut. As Chris, a sardonic slacker with salacious, wisecracking digressions and a flair-ups of codependences, with comic precise timing, Sullivan gives a stunning performance that feels at once as if a parody of his generation and a critique of it with a maturity beyond his years.

Canny, cringe-worthy, and yet discerning, with a hint of shrewd mischief, this 90-minute production achieves what some of the best theater aims for, pondering the profound and without providing any straight resolutions.

"Straight" runs through May 8 at the Acorn Theatre in Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. For information or tickets, call 212-714-2442 or visit www.theatrerow.org/theacorn.htm