Youthful fantasies may be a vital part of growing up, but just as with the influence of teachers, parents, and friends, their effects can linger — and do considerable damage — once you've grown up. Steven Fechter's new play Lancelot, which just opened at the Gym at Judson, is a provocative, if not always elegant, exploration of this concept, and not just from the viewpoint of the young. If you accept that adolescent dreams don't always end just because adolescence does, you're opening the door to a world of problems that no amount of time, therapy, recovery, or for that matter sex can fix.
The dreamers in this case were two Oklahomans: Ryan, a 13-year-old boy, whose interest in art blossomed into an interest in his 26-year-old art teacher, Ginger, which in turn blossomed into a two-year sexual relationship between the two. She was caught and imprisoned, he was forgiven but sent to an institution — exactly why is a matter of some conjecture for a while — and it was just assumed that their paths wouldn't cross again. Which they don't until ten or so years later when she, finally released from prison and starting a new life, wanders into the Big Box where he, now 25, is a manager.
She was, after all, his first love and, well, his first, and even the nasty court battle that happened afterward hasn't completely soured him on her. And she's always considered him a uniquely gifted artist with a special soul she still wants to introduce to the world. So it's no surprise that they still harbor some feelings for each other, or that their "chance" meeting (whether it's actually as random as it seems is an open question) leads almost immediately to sex. That Ryan has embraced respectability and a new coworker-girlfriend, named Tara, are matters of no real consequence at first.
Of course they must become so eventually, and Fechter deftly weaves the pair's torrid passions around the suffocating mundanities of their joint existence. It's apparent that Ryan is chafing against the social and religious strictures of his community, which he perceives let him down when he needed them most, and that Ginger is far from the monster she's long been made out to be. But even these matters are not necessarily as they appear, and it's not long before everyone is discovering secrets that force them to rethink most of the choices they've made in their conscious lives.
This twistiness of the simple plot, and director Thom Fogarty's stark staging (a bed, flanked by three rows of audience seating, is the only real furnishing), keep this from playing as merely the schematic deconstruction of a statutory rape story it technically is. Though both Ryan and Ginger float the idea that their love is something deeper, it's clear that neither is sure whether that's actually true, or a good thing even if it is. And the devastation that coming together has wrought on their souls, minds, and hearts is palpable, especially as new developments force new decisions that reveal new, still-bloody, wounds.
Romy Nordlinger layers complicated emotions onto Ginger, and manages them with intricate aplomb: A savage longing behind her eyes testifies to the woman's sensuous and predatory natures, giving you both sides of the argument until the scale can tilt one way or another. And Steven James Anthony brings a vivid emptiness to Ryan, underscoring his hurt, his sensitivity, and his libido alike; he finds particularly compelling ferocity in two scenes in which Ryan gives in to the violent temptations Ginger instilled him, one while naked on a bed, the other fully clothed and holding a drawing pencil.
Unfortunately, Tara, the play's only blameless victim, is at best sketched out, and lacks Ryan's and Ginger's complexities; that she's also played by Lulu Fogarty as a doting Southern stereotype, with an especially cartoonish drawl, doesn't help. Grant Riordan struggles to find much juice in the mostly extraneous and symbolic role of a teenage boy who reminds Ryan a bit too much of his past. A few other things keep the production from being a totally smooth ride: The full-frontal nudity (both male and female) is fairly gratuitous; Ryan's increasing callousness toward Tara tends to stumble ahead of the narrative; and a climactic courtroom scene feels disorganized and desperate, as though Fechter doesn't entirely trust his characters to organically work out their own problems and unravel their own plot.
He should. Ryan and Ginger are solid creations, and reveal fascinating shadings of morality amid a world that's depicted, not always without reason, as intensely monochromatic. This also explains the significance of the play's title: a crusader for purity who gets wrapped up in the sins he abhors and, in struggling to make things better, succeeds in little more than making them worse. That Fechter keeps you wondering throughout who the real Lancelot is proves to be the chief success of his cunning little play.