Straight: Surprisingly Twisted
Looking at the promotional poster for the new play at the Acorn Theatre, Straight, written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, I was reminded of all those cheaply made American independent films that have been produced over the last ten years centering on a male coming to terms with his sexuality surrounded by cute guys on one side and a pretty girl on the other. I have watched maybe too many of them on Netflix (I’m slightly embarrassed to say), and they are generally pretty bad, pretty unsurprising, and pretty predictable. Usually they leave me feeling pretty duped. They are never as original nor as funny as you hoped going in, and they almost always leave you feeling pretty empty going out. Sorta like a one-night stand or a sex hookup, no matter how ‘pretty’ they are. But this is not the case with Straight, I’m happy to say. It’s directed with a lot of heart and soul by Andy Sandberg taking us on a twisted journey of emotional and sexual discovery that felt very real and true.
A hookup, though, is exactly how this play begins. A late 20’s finance guy, Ben (a nuanced and convincing Jake Epstein) trying, awkwardly, to make small talk with a sexy younger man, Chris (a wonderful Thomas E. Sullivan, making brave and unique choices throughout) in his living room, drinking beer and watching a game on television. Pretty standard stuff, I initially thought. Seems like this experience will be exactly what I had imagined: something along the lines of a standard first play by a young gay man sharing his coming-out story. But as the talks continue, and the connection deepens over the course of this 90-minute one act play, it begins to feel less formulaic and more emotionally evolved. This is not a simple concept play, and we are actually given a lot more to see, hear, and think about. And most importantly, care about.
Interweaved with the scenes of these two men working out their emotional and sexual discomforts and desires, we are also given a chance to see Ben with his thoughtful and caring girlfriend, Emily (Jenna Gavigan giving a deeper and more complex performance then maybe the written part deserves). Emily is a PhD student studying something to do with hamsters, leukemia, and a nature vs. nurture component that I don’t know if I completely understood, but that concept gets worked into the conversation when these worlds eventually collide. We all knew this collision would happen, but we all cringed just the same when it finally does.
Here I guess is where I was impressed. The standard, but well orchestrated setups were all there, none of them that surprising but all handled in a fresh and emotionally-centered manner that brought me in and engaged me. This isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s not without merit. The actors all brought a core of truth, conflict, and emotional reality to some pretty formulaic scenes, bringing us in and getting us to care for these characters. As one friend said to me, I know these people. All of them. And I would say that by the end of this delightful play, we gasp, not only for what happens, but also for what these artists have accomplished; thoroughly and fully engaging us in the three characters of Straight.