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Rotterdam

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 24, 2017


Anna Martine Freeman and Alice McCarthy
Photo by Hunter Canning

In Jon Brittain's play, Rotterdam, opening today as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, Alice (Alice McCarthy) has finally worked up the courage to come out as gay, via a carefully crafted e-mail to her parents. With her girlfriend Fiona (a terrific Anna Martine Freeman) hovering nearby, Alice anxiously reads and edits her message over and over. "Writing this e-mail is the most important thing I've ever done," she explains. "I don't want it to open with 'Dear Mum and Dad, I've got something very important to tell you. I'm a Lebanon.'"

Fiona is growing impatient with Alice's stalling and nervous joking; after all, both of their families live in Britain while they have been on their own in Holland for the past seven years. Time to grow up. Yet, it turns out that Fiona has secrets of her own. Although she is in what she considers to be a solid and loving relationship with Alice, she has neglected to mention that she identifies as a transgender male and wants to begin transitioning as soon as possible.

That's the setup for Rotterdam, a play that wobbles a bit anxiously itself between sit-com humor and a serious consideration of the impact on friends, family, and lovers of characters who are trying to come to grips with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Alice, who tends to insulate herself from emotional entanglements beyond a very narrow circle of intimates, is understandably shaken when Fiona opens up to her about all she has been wrestling with. Alice wants to be fully supportive of her life partner, but what is she supposed to do with her love for Fiona, as the person she thought she knew is starting to morph into someone else, self-named Adrian?

There is no question that these are important issues, more than worthy of being explored through a theatrical lens. Plays focused on lesbian relationships have been far outnumbered by those about gay men, and plays about transgender men and women represent only a tiny fraction of works dealing with LGBT subject matter. Unfortunately, Rotterdam does little to move things forward. Instead of probing deeply into the questions being raised, the play deals with everything at a surface level. It's a lot of "tell" without enough "show" as Alice and Fiona/Adrian wrestle (sometimes together, but mostly apart) with their fear, anger, and imagined futures.

It doesn't help move things along when the playwright brings in a pair of supporting characters who are even less developed than the two at the center. One of them is Fiona/Adrian's brother Josh (Ed Eales-White), a near saint who once was Alice's boyfriend and who has remained loyal to and supportive of both ever since Alice left him. The play's fourth character is Lelani (Ellie Morris), a free-spirited, fun-loving Dutch woman, several years younger than the others and a lesbian herself, who is ready and willing to take up with Alice as her relationship with Fiona/Adrian begins to collapse. Certainly Alice's reticence to talk about her feelings in the wake of her lover's enthusiastic embrace of a future as a man does not help matters.

Perhaps the real problem with the play is that it tries too hard to balance the competing stories of Alice and Fiona/Adrian, each of them hunkered down in their own turmoil, without considering how their failure to listen to one another is preventing them from moving forward together. This is all very important to the development of the play, but we are forced to impose our own psychological depth in scenes of a determined "Adrian" striving to look and act like a man, and Alice either sulking or allowing herself to be coaxed into partying by the exuberant Lelani, who offers up dope, booze, fireworks, and sex as enticements.

Perhaps the director, Donnacadh O'Briain, might have found ways to put more meat on the bones, but the play itself relies on too many awkward inserts of pedantic dialog aimed at teaching us the meaning of such terms as "transgender" and "cisgender." The production also tries to distract us with Ellan Parry's colorful set and lots of bouncy Europop music incorporated in Keegan Curran's overall sound design. But these elements, as attractive as they are, cannot make up for a missed opportunity to deal directly with the issues the play raises but fails to elucidate. Indeed, it says a lot when the most touching moment involves the tell-the-parents phone call Fiona/Adrian has with her/his parents. Even one-sided, the conversation sounds completely authentic; while we know they have always accepted their child unconditionally, we hold our breaths through the "transgender talk." That level of authenticity is what is needed to bring the rest of the play fully to life. The subject matter alone deserves it.


Rotterdam
Through June 10
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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