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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Thomas E. Sullivan and Jake Epstein
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Is there a more normal American man than Ben? He's tall. He's in good shape. He's classically handsome. His clothes are first-rate and well pressed. He's only 26, but he's secured an enviable job in investment banking. He lives in a killer Boston apartment. He has a cupboard full of Jägermeister and a fridge full of Blue Moon, and can't conceive of why he'd need anything else (including, scoff, food) when he's watching his beloved Penn State games on TV. And he's still dating the same brilliant and beautiful girlfriend, Emily, he's been with since college. He is, by every reasonable standard, living his dream—along with a whole lot of other people's, too.

But the longer Straight, the surprisingly intricate and compelling new play by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola that just opened at the Acorn Theatre, goes on, the brighter a certain spark burns behind Ben's eyes. It's the last thing you thought you'd ever seen: confusion. Or, wait, maybe it's fear? In any case, it's the tiniest inkling, given barely detectable physical form, that this golden-boy mover-and-shaker sees himself as the outsider in any room he's in. And, as time goes on, you may find yourself not only agreeing with him, but wondering if he isn't actually one of the sanest people you'll ever meet.

The "problem" facing Ben (an ideal Jake Epstein) isn't much more complicated than his unwillingness to not check other people's boxes for them. Although Ben loves Emily (Jenna Gavigan), and is hardly above showing her as much physically at most any opportunity, she's not where his feelings stop. The first time we meet Ben, in fact, he's sitting on the couch in his apartment (the crisp, luscious design of Charlie Corcoran), frozen, while another man, named Chris and played by Thomas E. Sullivan, is perched at the other end. Before either has said a word, thanks to Epstein's deer-in-headlights glare and Sullivan's this-is-why-I'm-here smirk, you know exactly what's going on (or, rather, what's about to).

So who is Ben, really: the über-straight guy who just made one mistake, or the truly gay man who's now trying to atone after making a lifetime of them?

That Elmegreen and Fornarola, and their director, Andy Sandberg, are able to maintain and develop this question over 95 minutes of playing time without it ever getting old or trailing off is a not-so-minor miracle in a play that, given its creaky provenance, needs the help. But it works because their Ben is not naïve: He knows the score, and wants to be the only one who defines himself.

"When they find out you hook up with dudes," he tells Chris during one of their assignations, "that becomes who you are, not just something you do. Like, even if it’s just a little piece of who you are, and a lot of nights all you really want to do is be with your incredible girlfriend, the whole rest of your identity just gets subsumed by this one, like, vitiating thing."

Yet, oddly, Chris hasn't "come out" to most people around him, either. Why?

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan
Photo by Matthew Murphy

"If people knew," Ben surmises, "you’d stop being Chris who goes to Boston College, who studies history, who likes the kinds of music you like and hates the kinds of movies you hate, and you’d just be gay Chris, the gay friend, and there’d be no going back, even if later you decided you were tired of being just that. It’s because we’re obsessed with drawing neat little lines around things. Dichotomizing. People don’t like ambiguity. A guy is straight by default. If he does something with another guy, he goes over to gay, and that’s it, everything attached."

Ben, in other words, has thought of this extensively and made a choice—but is he in turn robbing other people of their choices? Chris wants to be with him fully, but can't; Emily, likewise, wants to be with him fully, but can't. Whether it's because they're less enlightened than Ben or because they want different things is the core of the play, and what makes it far more interesting and watchable than a traditional "coming out" story, even though it has plenty of those elements.

So enveloping and convincing is Ben's plight as written and directed, in fact, that the final "resolution" (to the extent it can be called that) elicited loud gasps at the performance I attended: Elmegreen and Fornarola want you to compartmentalize and judge Ben, too, so they can demolish your ideals and expectations, too. If there's a single message of Straight it would seem to have been ripped right out of the (appropriately titled) 1980s movie WarGames: "The only way to win is not to play."

Epstein (Beautiful, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) is superb at playing both sides of the Ben coin—not so much ambiguous as all-encompassing, a man who has reason to believe he can have it all and is now setting out to prove it—while also embodying the mounting emotional and physical tolls of leading his double life. As Gavigan plays her, Emily is totally on the level, a reasonable, stabilizing force a harried Ben would need, but she reveals enough of the solemn hints of anguish and betrayal beneath the surface that you know where she ultimately has to go, too. Only Sullivan is a bit unsatisfying: His more stalwart performance doesn't comport with the identity issues that roil that character, too, leaving him sounding like more of a moralizing figure than the script can safely support.

A few moments stretch credulity too much. Emily walks in on Ben and Chris three-quarters-naked and accepts without argument their "drunken football" explanation; at no other time is she presented as that, well, stupid. And Emily's long-aborning "time alone" with Chris fizzles out rather than becoming the fiery climax you crave. A more significant error is that neither of Ben's partners seems as alive as he, so it's difficult to know where his attraction comes from, even though the action of the play demands you accept it start strong and only build. You do because of how sharply Ben is written and played, but digging deeper with Emily and Chris than the narrative-minded, surface-level facts we get—she's studying nature-versus-nurture in mice, has a gay coworker, and may be a Republican; he's a Catholic who doesn't perceive much disconnect in how he worships and how he acts—would make everyone's struggles more real and more powerful.

Even in its current form, however, this is a creative and thought-provoking play, an unexpectedly potent spin on what many might (perhaps rightly) consider a superannuated genre. If many stigmas have been removed from our theatre and our society, Straight smacks us in the head and the heart to remind us of the many that still remain—and that, just maybe, exist more in the eyes of the beholders than in the eyes of the beheld.

Through May 8
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge