Directed by Andy Sandberg
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“And anyway–it is an excellent time to be gay. I sorta like gay people better!” (Emily to Ben)
If Emily (Jenna Gavigan) has her bioinformatics grad student finger on the national pulse when it comes to discerning whether the LGBT community has reached mainstream status, then it is a mystery why her boyfriend Ben (Jake Epstein) of four years has such difficulty accepting that he is gay. Ben’s inability to “fess up” to self and others is further puzzling given his deepening intimate relationship with almost twenty-one-year old Boston College student Chris (Thomas E. Sullivan) who spends increasing amounts of time with Ben in his bachelor pad. That query is the heady stuff of Scott Elmegreen’s and Drew Fornarola’s new play “Straight” currently playing at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row in Manhattan.
In one conversation with Chris, Ben says, “OK…But, yeah, but it seems kinda like, in our culture or whatever, like the only way to be gay is to be all the way gay. You know what I mean? I just…I wish it could stay like this, we have our normal lives, and just do what we feel like, without being weighted down with all this pressure to be all one thing or the other.” It appears it is all right for others for be gay but Ben. He chides Chris with, “But when it’s your son, or your brother, or your dad, suddenly it’s “Are you sure?” and “Is there anything we can do?” because that’s real. It’s like the Pink Scare in America or something.”
Ben is aware that he lives in a culture where “being gay” is not a problem. Chris reminds him that they are living in the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. And Ben is aware of his sexual status – he knows he is gay. Ben’s problem apparently is that he refuses to be labeled. Chris suggests early in their relationship that Ben is self-loathing so perhaps that is the source of Ben’s fear of being stigmatized. The difficulty is that Ben’s character is not developed fully enough to understand why he cannot accept who he is. And that is a significant problem in character development.
Chris’s character is richly developed by playwright’s Elmegreen and Fornarola which leaves their apparent choice to give Ben and Emily such short shrift puzzling. The premise of “Straight” is an engaging one and dealing with labeling and its consequences is a worthwhile and important dramatic enterprise. However, one longs for deeper understandings of the characters that inhabit Charlie Corcoran’s splendid Boston upscale apartment. Even Grant Yeager’s carefully plotted lighting design sheds little light on why Ben was attracted to Emily whose only goal in life seems to be getting hitched before thirty. And Ben teeters so closely on the edge of emotional barrenness it becomes difficult to care what decision he makes.
Under Andy Sandberg’s steady and discerning direction, Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan do their best to bring believability to their characters – Ms. Gavigan having to work harder than Mr. Epstein given the shallowness of her anemic Emily – and summon their formidable collective craft to do so. But it is newcomer Thomas E. Sullivan who really excels in this new play. He delivers a compelling canvas that paints richly the contours of his character Chris and is to be congratulated on his fortuitous Off-Broadway debut. It is worth seeing “Straight” just to witness this young actor’s prodigious craft.
The ending of “Straight” left the audience literally a-gasp so it is not fair to disclose what Ben ultimately chooses. Will he split with Emily and continue to bond with Chris? Will he dump Chris and finally move in with Emily? Or are there other choices this 26-year-old might make to disengage himself from his millennial ennui? It is worth seeing “Straight” to discover whether Ben successfully grapples with his status and makes the “right” choice. It would appear the playwrights are still grappling with their important play and it will be interesting to see where their journey will take them during the substantial time it is scheduled to run Off-Broadway.
The enduring questions raised by “Straight” remain: Is there still a stigma attached to being gay? Would a Millennial male feel devalued if he admitted he was gay when others always assumed he was straight? Are some generations more tolerant than others? Is it important whether or not social stigmas persist in distinguishing individuals who differ from their cultural norms? How do individuals choose to label themselves and how do they react to the labeling of others, particularly their peers? There are other enduring questions in “Straight” and it is perhaps those that should be posted on Twitter. So far it seems very few (if any) have followed the explicit directions on the Playbill insert and labeled themselves with the tear-off “I Label Myself” tab and posted to #LivingALabel.”
The ensemble cast and creative team are to be congratulated on their work evidenced in this important new play.