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3/2/16

Straight is a Straight-Up Throwback

Whenever theatre decides to tackle sexuality as a theme or a plot point, you can count on me being in the audience some time during previews. I mean, how could theatre not be an industry breaking ground in this regard with its content and following?! And some plays (Mothers and Sons, Significant Other) and musicals (Fun Home) have delivered the goods in big ways, providing thought-provoking insight and some entertainment value dispersed throughout.

In several ways, Straight, playing at the Acorn Theatre, would be a show to think favorably of because it is extremely focused. 90 minutes, three characters, one nice-looking apartment and a love triangle story. There you go; that is Straight’s Tinder biography. And said love triangle is what goes under the microscope - a closeted guy named Ben, who’s personality and interests adhere closer to hetero-normativity, his long-time girlfriend Emily…and his same-sex love interest (at least on a physical level) Chris.

But there are many problems here. The most notable problem is that Straight feels like that really good indie drama from 6-7 years ago, here’s why...

Ben likes his relationship with Emily, even though he doesn’t want to take that final plunge and move in with her (it’s been five years dude, but that’s okay, you do you). He certainly lusts for Chris on a physical level, what with all the making out and boning they do. I’m sure reading this, you would have a similar train of thought to me: Ben could identify as bisexual. Or pansexual. Or a hetero-romantic bisexu-…okay, point made. But Ben (and Chris, for that matter), with all of their conversations about sexuality in a modern era, never even mention the idea. In this universe, sexuality is either straight or gay.

Time out…flag on the play. I’m not calling out Straight for bi-erasure or anything, but for a show that has a lot to say about the subject matter, the omission of Ben’s possible bisexuality was too difficult to ignore. And as far as I’m concerned, it would have added another dimension to the show and place itself firmly in 2015/16.

If there is another flaw in the writing, it is that Straight seems a little too in love with the Ben character. Oh, he is flawed - very flawed even, between his confusion over his romantic prospects and his infidelity with his girlfriend - but he’s not as interesting as the play would make you believe. Straight treats Ben like he’s the most unique of all snowflakes with his love of beer, sports, investment banking and blah blah blah...

Um, hate to break it to you, but there are plenty of queer men who dabble in hetero-normativity. Like beer. And football. Investment banking. Cars. Hunting. Serving in the Armed Forces. I think we even have an out MMA/UFC fighter or something in our culture. Ben’s whole “I’m not like other gay men and I fear being stigmatized" schtick is an understandable mindset - and I am definitely not shaming Ben for his “in-the-closet, outsider” angst, even though he talks about homosexuality like the AIDS epidemic just broke out - but for all of the bullshit that Chris calls Ben out on, he never bothered with this aspect of Ben’s personality; he just went right back to spooning with him. All well and good - and Jake Epstein is to be commended for working overtime to make Ben believable and, more importantly, likable (flaws withstanding) - but Chris' patience and forgiveness, and Emily's as well, stretch credibility here.

So no, I’m definitely not fond of the writing when it was time to land some relevance and impact…but the rest of the production is in fine form and I was wholly invested in the lead-up to the final fade-to-black, where I groaned along with the rest of the audience at a last-minute development. Charlie Corcoran's set design of Ben’s apartment is gorgeous and I’d move in tomorrow if my bank account actually had some life in it. For whatever faults are in their writing, Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola provide a few memorable one-liners and, even with the retrograde undertones, paint a grounded portrait of sexuality and a love triangle without being boring.

In addition to Epstein’s fitting performance, Jenna Gavigan make Emily's frustration palpable as she puts up with a non-responsive boyfriend. And newcomer Thomas E. Sullivan channels a young, collegiate ‘mo looking for some sex without overdoing the overly-wise or shade-spewing aspects of Chris’ personality. Of the three, the character of Chris had the most potential of slipping into stereotypes, but Sullivan sidestepped all of that and gave my favorite performance.

I’m telling you, if I saw a movie version or a taped production of this show on my “Netflix Recommended” queue, timestamped with an 09’/10’ year and some projected rating of 3.7 stars or something, I would have totally understood how all that came to be. But the best way to approach Straight would be to act like the last few years never happened. Just time-warp back to 2009, where iPhones started to become commonplace and dialogue about sexuality started to appear more in the mainstream. Under those ordinances, Straight would be in a better standing. As it is now, its dated shortcomings are too prevalent to overlook.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Broadwayworld.com

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