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Phoenix

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Phoenix
Julia Stiles and James Wirt
Photo by Harry Fellows

You've heard of seduction in a bar, but... an abortion clinic? Yes, in Scott Organ's play Phoenix, which just opened in a new production at the Cherry Lane Theatre, even that venue is not off-limits for growing a stalled relationship between a man and a woman who haven't yet decided whether they belong with each other. Oh sure, they're obviously in the waiting room for a reason, and one that implies they've already been, if not intimate, then at least close. But surprises — in locales, as well as motivations — are par for the course in romance today. Meeting cute and living happily ever after were passé long before the 2000s hit.

So it's not exactly a shock that in Organ's cunning but stilted sort-of comedy, the course of true something doesn't run smooth. But in the twists and tangles the play documents, it's excellent at not going where you expect it to. That scene in the abortion clinic doesn't occur until mighty late in the evening, after Sue (Julia Stiles) and James (James Wirt) long ago met at a bar trivia night, spent the night together, parted, and came together again four weeks later to discover that their assignation had repercussions they didn't expect. These include, among other things, a kind of cosmic connection that keeps reuniting them every time they think they've said their final goodbyes. The heart doesn't let go as easily as the mind, though, and sometimes it doesn't let go at all.

As compelling an idea as that could be, Phoenix is not as warm nor as hot as its namesake Arizona city might lead you to believe. Organ is less interested in unchecked passion, to the point that he leaves it almost entirely offstage, than he is the realistic outcome of it on two people who think they're above it. Sue intentionally closed herself off, and James was closed down against his will, but neither anticipates that a single fling could, at this point in their lives (they're both into their 30s), lead to longer-lasting attachment. And coming around to that belief does not demand — and doesn't even necessarily benefit from — the scorching chemistry that would usually be a chief selling point for this variety of sex-themed two-hander.

Like Sue and James, then, the play has a bit of a split personality. In a character study that cries out for specifics and emphatic declarations and revelations, Sue and James are so down to earth that they almost seem unreal. Organ's dialogue, which often has the vaguely vacant, clipped sound of an acting-class open scene, contributes to this, suggesting that these two people could be any two people, and thus that's largely how they behave. Even during their moments of greatest depth — at the clinic, when both are nervous for very different reasons; in one bizarre exchange in which the playful James pretends to be a time traveler — you never really conclude that these are people you want to, or even can, know.

Director Jennifer Delia's staging is a bit arid, trying to squeeze too many different locations from Caite Hevner Kemp's simple rotating set and Rick Carmona's unduly colorful lighting, and not giving Sue or James the breathing room to register as a complete person. A lack of fluidity, particular around the beginning and end of scenes, also gives the brief play (90 minutes, no intermission) a jagged feeling; the abrupt blackouts and overly lengthy scenery changes don't naturally complement the gradually growing affection (or a reasonable facsimile) between Sue and James that's supposed to keep us engrossed.

Unfortunately, neither does Wirt, who drastically overplays the disengagement from which James is trying to extricate himself. Wirt presents James as a man who's trying to rebuild himself from the ground up, and is still placing the foundational bricks. But the character doesn't lack forthrightness — he is remarkably honest and straightforward at every point — so the actor seems at odds with him until the last scene or two, by which point it's difficult to fully accept James's evolution. (Wirt's uncertain, sing-songy line delivery, sounding calculated to make James seem much more innocent than he actually is, only exacerbates the problem throughout.)

Stiles, however, turns in a forceful and intelligent performance, pinpointing Sue as precisely the no-nonsense, take-charge, new-era feminist the script describes. This pays critical dividends early on, as we see Sue struggle against the things she thinks she wants that don't mesh so easily with James's desires, and Stiles expertly lets her soften slowly as the rules change around her. Though Stiles could stand to open up more as the story unfolds, to better chart the impact James has on Sue as he increasingly wears her down, she draws the conflict so beautifully during the key scenes, and its resolution at the end, that you don't really feel you're missing out on anything.

Things don't go quite the proper way for them all the time; in that clinic, for example, each goes too far when the other isn't as giving or ready to compromise as might be practical. Life and love work like that, and Organ understands that enough that Phoenix is always creditable even when, as too much of the time, it's not entirely credible. If the play isn't as incisive or emotional as it could be, that in itself is almost a meta-comment on the subject matter: The hook-up culture to which these two, unwitting or otherwise, ascribe doesn't encourage strong bonds between men and women, and fighting that reality is an ugly process that often involves real casualties.

Could Sue and James do better? Probably. But by striving to make a less-than-ideal situation work, they're not willing to settle for worse. That creates enough tension to make Phoenix — in its best moments, at any rate — worth the trip.


Phoenix
Through August 23
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix