BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | My mother used to say, ‘Threes are bad.’ That’s why she never let me have a play date with two other kids. She always said someone would be left out.”
So said Jenna Gavigan, the charming young actress who plays Emily in the new play “Straight,” currently in previews and running through May 8 at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row.
What may make for toddler tantrums, however, is the very stuff that plays are created from, and “Straight” unabashedly dives into the tensions, fears, and challenges an interpersonal triangle can lead to.
The plot concerns Ben, an investment banker making a comfortable six-figure salary at 26, and his girlfriend, Emily, a graduate student and cancer researcher barely getting by. They don’t live together, but they are a couple. Emily wants more. So, in fact, does Ben.
Ben’s “more,” however, comes in the form of Chris, a 20-year-old male undergrad at Boston College. While Emily and Chris are pretty sure what they want, namely Ben, the two relationships cause a crisis for Ben, who has to come to terms with not only who he is but who he wants to be. As Shakespeare said, “Thereby hangs a tale.”
Yet this is no Shakespearean play. After seeing the play and talking to the actors, it’s clear to me that this uniquely contemporary and thought-provoking play that — over and above the sex triangle — stirs up a host of fascinating insights into 20-somethings and questions of identity in 2016. Oh, and it’s a comedy — a sometimes bittersweet and fragile comedy, but a comedy nonetheless.
One of the remarkable things about Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola’s play is that one is hard pressed to find other plays to compare it to. It’s that wonderfully welcome thing: a truly original work. The closest I could come to a similar piece attempting to catch the youth zeitgeist was “This Is Our Youth.” Good as that play is, it is 20 years old — and the world has changed.
In “Straight,” the playwrights have peeled back the cover on what it’s like for this trio of young adults out on their own, more or less. Emily, Gavigan explained, is representative of a lot of people she knows,
“This is a life play,” she said. “It’s funny and upsetting. It’s as if they are almost stunted because of the debt we are in.” At one point in the play, Ben points out that Emily is curing cancer and makes less than a truck driver.
Gavigan pointed out that many people of her generation have heard “don’t rush into things” from their parents, and they’ve taken that to heart. At the same time, she added, young people today feel enormous pressure due to biological demands as well as not knowing what social norms they are expected to abide by.
Norms and labels play a huge role in “Straight.” Thomas E. Sullivan, a remarkable young actor making his Off Broadway debut in the play, said his character, Chris, is used to getting what he wants. So when Ben expresses resistance to being public in his relationship with Chris, it becomes, Sullivan said, a case of “immovable object meets irresistible force.”
Yet there’s more at play here. Sullivan noted that the play touches on the half-dozen years that separate the two men’s ages and how the perception of being gay in the culture has evolved even over that short a time span. But, for Chris, greater acceptance might primarily mean being seen in the wider straight world as “the gay friend.”
“Coming out isn’t the problem many people face,” Sullivan said. “It’s the baggage of being reduced to a label. Everyone can be very welcoming and then it [your sexuality] becomes who you are.” He notes that that label is ultimately dehumanizing.
Part of Chris’ conflict, then, is that he feels marginalized by the label, and his fullness as a person remains unseen. In a world of social media and 140-character communication, that’s an issue that goes beyond sexuality, and Chris’ struggle with being acknowledged as the total person he is becomes one of the most sensitively explored issues in the play.
Jake Epstein, who plays Ben, understands and in his performance embodies the demands on someone who falls smack in the middle of the Kinsey Scale, as neither exclusively gay nor exclusively straight. Even with greater visibility and respect for gay people, the ambiguities in Ben’s life aren’t necessarily appreciated culturally, and the play explores that.
“Ben’s feeling for men are a huge part of his life, and he struggles talking about it because of the labels,” Epstein said. “For a gay person, there’s an expectation to make that public, and if you don’t feel like announcing it, there’s a cloud around it.”
The issue facing Ben is not the fear of coming out but rather his reluctance to embrace any easy definition of his sexuality.
“It’s very provocative,” Epstein said, “because he’s in that period of life, post-college and not settled down, where he’s got this last window to figure himself out.”
Ben struggles with his feelings, his longing, and the love he feels for both Chris and Emily. He sees two sides of himself in these relationships, and he likes those differences in himself.
“It’s never equal love,” Epstein said of Ben’s crisis. “It’s always complicated.”
Gavigan said of the characters, “They love each other dearly, and they don’t want each other to be hurting. They’re just rooting for everyone to be happy.”
Of course, at least in this context, Gavigan’s mother is right: not everyone will be happy, at least in the short-term. Except for audience members, who are likely to be very happy with this play and the performances. My definition of genius is the ability to look at a situation from an angle no one has considered before. In this case, the genius of “Straight” is in opening our eyes to the challenges of love and relationships in 2016 and helping us to see the people beyond the labels.
STRAIGHT | The Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through May 8: Mon.-Tue., Sun. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m. | $79.50 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Eighty-five mins., no intermission