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The Jamb

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 2, 2016

Nic Grelli and J. Stephen Brantley
Photo by Hunter Canning

What's a hedonistic gay guy to do when he's turning 40 and the rituals of pleasure have become numbing habit, and the booze, drugs, and sex are no longer doing their job of keeping the wolves at bay? Scary stuff, but playwright J. Stephen Brantley nimbly tackles this midlife meltdown with a heady mix of anger, pain, love, history, and lots of snappy jokes in the compelling new work, The Jamb, having its premiere at the Kraine Theater.

Sorely in need of a life-changing intervention, Tuffer (a charmingly manic Nic Grelli) is the anchorless scion of a wealthy family, about whom his closest friend Roderick (performed by Mr. Brantley) says: "He never had to count his blessings. There was always someone on staff for that."

When we first meet them, Roderick is pounding on the graffiti-covered door of Tuffer's New York apartment. It is five in the morning, and Tuffer has called his friend in a panic over an intruder. Turns out the "intruder" is Tuffer's latest boyfriend, the much younger Brandon (Todd Flaherty), whose presence annoys Roderick nearly as much as the pre-dawn false alarm.

The Jamb, directed by David Drake, asks a lot of our attention during the exposition-heavy first act, which includes, among other tangential points, a discussion about an André Gide novel. This talkiness prevents us from learning much more than the facts about the characters and their lives, focusing instead on Roderick's anger and Tuffer's resistance to change. The two go at it tooth and nail, while Brandon barely can get a word in.

The playwright also strives to contextualize the story within the broader history of gay life in the United States. The play takes place in 2008, just as California was about to join Massachusetts in legalizing same-sex marriage, a hallmark of openness that Tuffer and Roderick never imagined growing up. They were born in the late 1960s, at the time of the Stonewall riots, and came of age half-in and half-out of the closet, stuck, as Tuffer puts it, in the doorjamb.

By way of contrast, Brandon, who is not half so clueless as he pretends to be, is representative of the younger and freer generation of gay men who are far more comfortable in their skin (lots of which is on display as Brandon parades around in his briefs). At one point, as he prepares to walk out in disgust, he tells the pair: "You guys are pretty lame if you think turning forty is such a gigantic tragedy. I mean, you could be turning forty in Darfur. You could be turning forty in fucking Afghanistan."

It's an insightful observation, but turning 40 is nevertheless a huge deal to Roderick and Tuffer. Roderick has been clean and sober for several years, and he despairs at the way his friend clings to his increasingly self-destructive behavior. The two argue relentlessly about this, until Tuffer agrees finally to go with him to attempt to dry out at the home of Roderick's mother in New Mexico.

The characters become more fully realized in Act II, which is greatly enriched by the presence of Roderick's mom Abigail (the delightful Carole Monferdini), a free-spirited former folk singer and flower child. Her hippie ways annoy and embarrass Roderick, but she seems able to bring out the best in everyone. Her affirming presence, along with the New Mexico sunshine, softens Roderick and Tuffer, and we begin to see that the defiance with which they embraced the post-Stonewall "gay lifestyle" has also hardened them against the possibility of accepting genuine affection and support. It is a significant breakthrough when Tuffer pleads with his friend and possible life partner, "please don't give up on me." We may not be able to predict where they will wind up, but by play's end they are at least moving forward after being stuck for so long.

The Jamb
Through September 17
The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues, First Floor (no wheelchair access)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketing by Vendini

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