Tuesday, 23 February 2016

STRAIGHT by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola at the Acorn Theatre

       I'm doing something here I have not done before. Upon a good deal of reflection, I am revising my comments on STRAIGHT. I totally wasn't accurate in my reading of the play. I still have reservations, but think there is something different in the play from what I first saw. It is also fair to underscore that I saw a preview--a late preview (it had been running for two weeks when I saw it and would formally open on the 29th, which means it has to be frozen and available to critics before then).
      For the first time in the history of this blog, I received a request from the show's press representative to take down my review. I didn't for two reasons. First, I believe that once producers put a show before a paying audience, it is fair game for criticism. Second, because I am sure the press rep would not have asked me to take my comments offline if they were filled with praise. In all fairness, I went after the play with a cleaver. My comments were too passionately negative. I also gave away too much of the ending. Mea culpa.
     Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornara's play gives us scenes between Ben (Jake Epstein), a twenty-six-year old man who works in finance and his girlfriend Emily (Jenna Gavigan), alternating with scenes between Ben and Chris, a twenty-year-old Boston University undergraduate (Thomas E, Sullivan). Ben and Emily have been dating since college though they still have separate Boston apartments. Emily seems much more devoted to her career than her erstwhile boyfriend is committed to his. Ben and Chris hook up through a grindr-like website, but, during the four months of the play's action, come to love each other. Ben is honest with Chris about Emily, but totally dishonest with Emily about Chris.
     While Chris gradually comes out to his college friends during the course of the play, Ben is terrified of being branded as gay. He thinks that if people think he's gay, that is all he will be to them--the gay guy. Ben may not be 100% gay, but he certainly isn't 100% straight. I am a believer in Kinsey's idea of a spectrum of sexual desire, but, at least as it is acted in this production, Ben clearly is more attracted to Chris sexually and emotionally than he is to Emily. His sexual overtures to Emily seem forced, either tactics to shut her up or attempts to prove his heterosexuality while, by the end of the play, he seems to be in love with Chris. I don't know if this is what the playwrights and director intended, but this is what played on stage on Monday night. Why is Ben so terrified of his homosexual desire? He's in Boston in the 21st century, for heaven's sake.
       One problem with the play is that we don't learn much else about Ben. What else is he but a man filled with internalized homophobia and more ambivalence than Hamlet? He doesn't like his job and doesn't seem to have any interests. During the course of the play we find out more about his lovers, in part because they are more interesting characters. Emily has a blossoming career as a scientist. In addition to his constant horniness, Chris manages to balance his sexuality with his religion and he has a real curiosity about other people and a good deal of empathy. While he is closeted himself at the beginning of the play, he longs to break out. When he drunkenly dances around Ben's apartment, Ben calls him a "faggot." We're supposed to care about Ben's confusion, but the playwrights haven't given him much substance.
       One more question.... Why do Emily and Chris love this guy who won't commit to either of them. Why is a smart woman like Emily so cloyingly in love with Ben? Why doesn't Chris move on to someone less self-absorbed and self-hating?
      There's one scene between Ben and Chris where I believed that the writers of STRAIGHT seem to be totally sympathetic with Ben--that they believe, as he does, that there is reason to fear being known as gay, that being known as gay makes you only gay to other people. It's the only time in the play that Ben is at all eloquent. Chris doesn't really argue with Ben's contention. He has felt this himself at times. My sense is that the playwrights want us to see a gay identity as irrelevant. In refusing that identity Ben isn't "gay." However, he seems more attracted to men than women. It's certainly OK not to want to be categorized as gay. However, it's not good for Ben or the people around him that that side of himself so frightens him.
      At the center of the play is the scene the audience had to expect--the moment when Emily walks in on Ben and Chris semi-nude on the sofa. Oddly, incredibly, Emily registers no suspicion. Can a smart scientist be so clueless? Of course, if Emily caught on it would be a different, shorter play. Ben goes into a total panic and wants Chris to make a fast exit, but Chris stays. I mention this moment because it raises a problem with the writing and the direction. Jake Epstein was directed to play the scene as if it were on a television sitcom. I thought real panic was called for at that moment if we are to believe Ben's character. This is the scariest moment of his life. This raises another question. Did the writers intend STRAIGHT to be a comedy or a serious drama? The people around me thought the play was going to be a comedy. There was a lot of forced laughter for the first few minutes but it soon subsided. Eventually, my audience wanted to take the play seriously but Ben isn't deeply enough written for a successful serious play. However,  comedy needs funny lines and these are rare in STRAIGHT.
       I think the ending shocked me most of all. It did elicit gasps from the group of women sitting behind me. Without being a spoiler, I can just say I hope that sort of thing doesn't happen any more. It's sad for all involved and took away the limited sympathy I had for Ben.
     Yet here I am writing a long review of STRAIGHT. The play is far from a masterpiece but it intrigued me.
     Oh, the acting. I found Jenna Gavigan's clingy Emily to be irritating-- was it Gavigan or her character? Jake Epstein caught Ben's fierce desire to be liked even when he is being a cad. We will hear from the charismatic Thomas E. Sullivan again. He, more than anyone, gave STRAIGHT substance and depth.
STRAIGHT. Acorn Theatre. February 22, 2016.


  1. I'm 50-years-old. Are you older than me? You seem to assume all through your blog post (not really a review because you gives spoilers all throughout) that Ben is gay. I think the play would make a lot more sense to you if you thought of him as bisexual.

    This is a play about the problems with being bisexual in 2016. I was very intrigued by it, as I only knew the problems of being bisexual in the 1980s and 1990s. (From what I heard, the "bisexual movement" was very active in Boston in the 1990s.)

    Male bisexuality is different that female bisexuality in that females tend to identify as bisexual for their entire lives, and male bisexuals don't. Men's sexual identification seems more fluid.

    I was a part of the bisexual community (women's support group and co-ed bisexual brunch) in Albany, NY in the 1990s. I have had about half a dozen bisexual male friends.

  2. Wow, I see that you are a Professor Emeritus of Theater Studies and English at Duke University, and have written several books and scores of articles. :) So, I hope you don't take my comment about this not being a review the wrong way... I really enjoyed reading it, and I haven't found anything else about the play on the internet. (I loved the play except for the ending. The fact that this might reflect reality for some guys in East Coast cites disturbed me, and made me feel old.)

    1. Ben may be bisexual. I agree with Kinsey that there is a spectrum of desire, not just a gay box and a straight one. If I read the play correctly, Ben is somewhere in the middle but leaning closer to gay than straight. But Ben's problem in the play seems to be that he is attracted to men but hates that he is attracted to men. He wants above all to live what he sees as a "normal" life despite the fact that he feels more for Chris sexually and emotionally than he feels for Emily. My problem with STRAIGHT is that the writers don't seem to be clear on what they want to do with the situation they have created.