Regional Reviews: Boston
A Guide for the Homesick
Also see Nancy's review of Fun Home
With his blistering new play A Guide to the Homesick, in its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company, playwright Ken Urban questions whether things do get better, and for whom. Are we always moving toward equality and acceptance, and when is it safe to come to terms with who you are? The two protagonists, Jeremy and Teddy, are drawn together one night in Amsterdam in 2011, strangers sharing a dingy hotel room before they each fly home. Jeremy has just returned abruptly from his clinic in Uganda, clearly troubled by his departure; Teddy's on a getaway with his engaged friend Ed before the wedding back home.
Though their interaction starts off perfunctorily, soon we are invested in the stories these men are afraid to tell, both trying to piece together each other's motives as they conceal their own. After meeting in the hotel bar, Jeremy accepts Teddy's invitation to his room, and they start shotgunning beers and assessing what the other wants. There's a seductive undercurrent to their meeting. When Teddy suggests they do more than talk, Jeremy insists he's not there for a hookup, that he's not even gay.
Urban maintains the ambiguity of this encounter, where both men struggle to figure each other out while also grappling with the shame of something they've done. Something unspeakable. We learn Teddy's friend Ed has disappeared, and Ed's fiancée keeps calling his cell phone from the States, which Teddy won't answer. Meanwhile, we see Jeremy painfully recall his friendship with a patient, Nicholas, whom he counseled on using protection with his male partner. Over the weeks that followed, we see he provided a source of comfort and openness for Nicholas, who cannot freely be gay in public or go out with his (married) lover.
From herewithout revealing too muchour protagonists push each other to confront the truth, no matter how painful it may be. Through Jeremy's flashbacks, we come to understand the mounting danger Nicholas and other gay Ugandans were in, a real-life LGBT backlash that led to the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act cruelly penalizing same-sex relationships. Mirroring this, Teddy and Jeremy's confrontation takes on a violence of its own, where the men aim to hurt before they can start to heal.
McKinley Belcher III (Teddy) and Samuel H. Levine (Jeremy) are well-matched stage partners. They share an easy intimacy that allows us to believe these strangers recognized something familiar in each other. From their first minutes on stage, both actors suggest their characters' unease: Levine's Jeremy prone to nervous laughter and over-gesticulation, Belcher playing up Teddy's cool to mask what's really on his mind. As they slowly acknowledge what happened to their friends, the play switches between present and past, and each actor becomes the absent partner.
As Nicholas, Belcher is completely transformed from Teddy, keenly embodying Nicholas's flirtatious side and his confidence in his own identity, overjoyed to have to someone to open up to. As Ed, Levine drops Jeremy's frantic tics; his personality veers between flat and manic, unnerving Teddy as he breathlessly chatters about whales without pause. Other than a lighting change and a few set surprises, the actors manage the transitions all on their own, capably differentiating between their two characters as they reveal the choices they've made and the truth they're afraid to tell.
You may not be that surprised by what really happened. But the emotional wounds these men inflict are bracingly real, so that even the more obvious revelations feel believable. While Urban depicts homophobia abroad, we're also reminded that the U.S. has endured its own bigotry in response to the momentum of marriage equality. Teddy and Jeremy's backgrounds, from their respective upbringings in Roxbury and Newton to their education and careers, have shaped how comfortable they are in their own skin. Their verbal boxing match over "coming out" finds the characters confronting their more naive beliefs, especially the notion that being out makes you happier or safer.
Director Colman Domingo keeps the production virile and hot-blooded, intensifying as the characters combat their memories and their own prejudices. His actors carry an erotic charge in the ways they circle each other, the ways they needle, the ways they touch. The line between fear and desire gets blurry. But even in the wake of everything they've been through, there's a connection. If Teddy and Jeremy can't imagine a future, they at least have the present.
A Guide for the Homesick is presented by the Huntington Theatre Company through November 4, 2017, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA. Tickets can be purchased at huntingtontheatre.org or by phone at (617) 266-0800.
Cast: McKinley Belcher III (Teddy/Nicholas); Samuel H. Levine (Jeremy/Ed).
Creative Team: Directed by Colman Domingo; Scenic Design: William Boles; Costume Design: Kara Harmon; Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa; Original Music & Sound Design: Lindsay Jones; Production Stage Manager: Adele Nadine Traub; Stage Manager: Jeremiah Mullane.