Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Bridges of Madison County
But David is a good best friend, who not only protects Zachary from the latter's awful color scheme judgments, but also agrees, however reluctantly, to attend Zachary's double-bachelor party in Montreal. David shares his antipathy to marriage with embittered Frank. "We didn't need it," he insists, speaking of his decades-long relationship with his deceased lover. Frank, who came of age post-Stonewall and endured the plague of the '80s, is sage enough to understand that, just as younger generations of gays will never fully grasp the nature and dimensions of the struggle that brought them to the present moment, he himself, imprisoned in his own historical moment, will likewise miss certain features of their experiences. "Do me a favor," he says to David. "Be patient with your elders, won't you? If we don't jump for joy at your gay liberation, it's not because we don't love it, it's because we don't recognize it." In a wonderfully nuanced performance, Patrick Bailey conveys the quiet dignity of a spent and exhausted one-time warrior, reconciled now to a tragic vision of life.
David presents his antagonism to marriage as politically and ideologically driventhe institution he insists, is irredeemably heteronormativebut it soon becomes apparent that his skepticismor fearis grounded in the painful memories of his parents' heartless abandonment of their son upon his coming out. Sarah, David's quirky twin sister (Emily Gunyou Halaas) who shares that memory, is similarly skeptical of the prospects for cruelty-free long-term relationships until to her surprise she suddenly finds herself in love with her green card spouse. "Little bwudder's" commitment problems, however, are of an order that he collects and surrounds him with unopened books. To read them would be to hazard disappointment and David believes he cannot afford any further disillusionment. "Richard was perfect," Sarah exclaims referring to the latest good man David broke up with. Yes, David concedes. But, well, four months is progress and besides, "Frank needs me" and besides, Richard dared to say "the M word." Nothing ventured, nothing lost. No gain but more importantly, no pain.
Once he arrives in Montreal, David stumbles into a florist shop to buy flowers for the wedding couple and, this being a romantic comedy, falls head over heels with bilingual florist Benoit, played with unassuming charm and elegance by Michael Hanna. Benoit, a sexy, sensitive, gay Jewish Québécois, is so adorably sweet (even his name sound like a donut) as to prove irresistible to David. And, this being a romantic comedy, Benoit, who is David's junior by ten years, fully reciprocates. Dawkins delivers a courtship scene so well-wrought and entertaining that it deserves the designation classic. The scene, which is destined to become a favorite of scene-study classes for at least a decade, expertly captures the awkwardness and exhilaration of lovers' first encounter and the banter between the two at once hilarious and disarmingly realistic. David and Benoit stay up all night breathlessly pondering life and identity and mountains and cities as they roaming the streets of Montreal. By dawn, they're a thing. Mine could not have been the only face in the audience that began to ache from smiling.
After recounting his own very sad if not unfamiliar coming out story, David insists on hearing Benoit's. Well, okay. One day a few years past, Benoit brought a lover home and as they were headed toward his bedroom, Benoit mumbled over his shoulder: "Mom, Dad this is Jean."
So, that's ... it? David stutters. David's academic specialty is classification, which means he is an expert in what librarians call "aboutness": putting booksand peopleinto neat, orderly categories. More than a job, classification is for David a coping mechanism, premised on the idea that by knowing exactly who you are and more importantly, who you are not, a person can steer clear of catastrophe. But then there is Benoit. "Le switch" is Quebecois for bilingualism, and David marvels at how effortlessly Benoit switches back and forth between French and English. Thematically, the term signifies a fluidity of identity, and it is surely part of Benoit's allure for David that he eludes being constrained by prescribed categories. It also terrifies David. Perhaps one of the reasons that Dawkins decided to have David be Jewish is that it allows him to exacerbate the manifold sacrifices that so many GLBT persons who at a young age were cut off by their families must have been forced to make simply to survive. A teenage David might have had to trade off parts and pieces of his young life to find a home and a community he could belong to. To prove that he is not entirely monolingual, David recites a Hebrew blessing he learned for his bar mitzvah, and then fairly swoons when it becomes clear that Benoit knows that language too. "You're Jewish?" he gasps. Yes, that too. So Benoit offers David a chance to reconnectin love and friendshipwith a culture or tradition, perhaps a faith, that must have seemed lost to him forever.
Not to be a spoiler, I'll leave the plot off there. Suffice to say that the latter half introduces a slight variation of the standard boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back, and that the variation involves a bagpipe serenade. Ultimately, Dawkins remains faithful to generic imperativesthere is reconciliation, there is a kiss, there is a happy ending. I thought it was lovely.
The Jungle and Dawkins make a (second) perfect match. All the actors have terrific moments, but director Jeremy Cohen deserves the credit for creating the best ensemble work I've seen in any show this year. Making sad sack, emotionally stunted characters endearing is no easy feat but Kasey Mahaffy does it with aplomb. His David, who is somehow simultaneously neurotic and down to earth, is likeable throughout. That is probably mostly due to Mahaffy's expert comic timing, but his ease and honesty contribute as well. Like Emily Gunyou Halaas, he builds emotional pressure by consistently pushing against sentimentality and so those moments when the actors do let their defenses down are some of the most powerful ones in the play.
Gunyou Halaas' reputation as a master of deadpan is well established and she uses it to great effect here. But another reason that Gunyou Halaas shines is that from the very outset she allows us to glimpse Sarah's vulnerability. Sarah's sarcasm and her fast-talking spin are not only fun but compelling inasmuch as we know that they are her way of covering. And so when, late in act two, Sarah spontaneously interrupts her babble and spills forth the news of her baby's gender, I thought that Barry Browning must have raised the houselights a notch. Her face was that radiant.
I saw the play only a few days after the Orlando massacre. As I walked into the lobby I wanted to cling to the world of the play and its joyful celebration of love. Sometimes more than others it's is so painful to be reminded that "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past," as William Faulkner put it. For some viewers at least, Dawkins' decision to make the major characters gay and Jewish will invite echoes of early 20th century Germany and of a period when both gays and Jews came to believe that they had finally achieved acceptance, only to have it seized from them in extreme and tragic ways a few years later. There will always be those for whom romantic comedy is not much more than insipid froth. But as the theorist and film critic Stanley Cavell pointed out, the genre with its insistent message that love does win out in the end, can serve an important cultural function. At certain times or moments, that message becomes not only or primarily inspiring, but defianteven empoweringat least when it's done as well as it is here.
Le Switch, by Philip Dawkins, through July 31, 2016, at the Jungle Theatre, 2951 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. For information and tickets, call the box office at (612) 822-7063 or visit through www.jungletheater.com.
Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen