The boundaries between love and friendship fall just as easily as the borders between countries and genders in Barry Levey's engrossing new play, Critical Darling. This latest production of The New Group (naked) at the Lion Theatre is small only in terms of its running time (90 minutes) and cast size (four performers); in terms of its ideas and emotions, it's one of the most expansive new plays in New York.
While the play is an in-depth examination of "the closet," from perspectives personal, professional, and social, Levey and director Ian Morgan are more interested in telling a story about the relationships that form our lives. "Friendship, no matter what, that's love," a character says at one point; that could well be the play's motto, a reminder (or perhaps a suggestion) that love, wherever you can find it, is worth embracing while you can.
That's the problem facing fading writer Sir Frank Willis (Mark Jacoby): He's in a long-term relationship with poet Evie Standpoor (Elizabeth Hess) that has just culminated in their engagement. The two came to the United States from England four years earlier seeking new opportunities, though he's blocked creatively and Evie has yet to make her big splash. But her plan for doing that, enlisting an up-and-coming Czech composer named Daniel Weiland (Daniel London) to set her latest writings to music, threatens to throw Frank's life into chaos.
He and Daniel recently met and had a secret fling, though their feelings have already progressed beyond the one-night-stand variety that's defined most of Frank's other same-sex relationships. Frank, afraid of the effects on his career that his long-hidden homosexuality being made public will have, is caught between the woman he loves, the man he desires, and free-wheeling and drug-addled spiritual advisor Gerald Headly (Andrew Polk), whom he's brought with him to help him calm his emotional and sexual appetites.
Morgan expertly keeps all of this in line, while simultaneously emphasizing the elements of Levey's text that highlight the dangers of the outside world - on both the local and global levels - that affect all the characters' words and actions. But Levey and Morgan have tempered this by injecting the always incisive, dramatic writing with a number of laughs that help make even the darkest, most tragic moments easier to swallow.
This humor is highly character-driven, deriving not only from the people's skewed outlooks, but also their own na´vetÚ about homosexuality in the pre-World War II world. One discussion about the derivation of the word "homosexual" (recalling one of the brightest moments from Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love) ends with Frank making a desperate declaration of the word's definition to spare Evie the pain of learning the truth; it's a show-stopper of the best - and subtlest - kind.
The rest of the production is similarly in step. Peter R. Feuchtwanger's pastel-and-wood set and S. Ryan Schmidt's lights beautifully represent the play's New Mexico setting, and Deirdre Wegner's period costumes are just right. The four performers are ideally cast, possessing such palpable chemistry that you intimately understand Frank's conundrum - he really would be a perfect match with either Evie or Daniel. Jacoby is completely convincing as the self-loathing Frank, Hess is by turns reserved and passionate as Evie, London brings out plenty of understated conviction in Daniel, and Polk crisply defines and smoothly portrays Gerald, the play's primary comic counterweight.
Good as the performers are, it's the details they have to work with that so bring these people and their problems to vivid life: The methods Evie has used to insinuate herself into Frank's life that he's now unconsciously dependent on her for his livelihood; the ways that one lie can be indistinguishable from the truth to one person, yet unravel if someone else hears it spoken; the depths of the pain and confusion Frank feels in trying to come to grips with who he is and what he really wants.
But in Critical Darling, there are no easy solutions or easy anything else. The characters' quests for their own personal truths and needs, no matter what the cost, is one thing that makes the play seem so relevant and compelling. The other is the play's urgent insistence that, despite the great strides that have already been made in terms of public and personal acceptance of homosexuality since World War II, we all have a long way yet to go.
The New Group (naked)