BY DAVID KENNERLEY | When I first got wind of “Straight,” the new drama about a guy who has a serious girlfriend yet who also hooks up with a guy, I was hopeful. Finally, I thought, a play about the escalating visibility of sexual fluidity and blurring of identity labels. A play showing that being attracted to both sexes, while complicated, is no big deal. After a couple of years of provocative theater exploring the T in LGBT, I was excited to see a play focused on the B.
This is not quite that play.
What “Straight” is, however, is a first-rate comic drama, written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, about wrestling with sexuality and being torn between two worlds. Here labels, however inadequate, are a very big deal. Could it have been written 20 years ago? Sure. But in the capable hands of director Andy Sandberg and a terrific cast, the well-worn subject feels as potent and relevant as ever.
Besides, there’s a fresh angle. Ben is a 26-year-old investment banker who identifies as straight and has the stereotypical trappings to prove it. His otherwise bland Boston apartment, impeccably designed by Charlie Corcoran, is filled with stuff like a pennant from U Penn (his alma mater), an Aerosmith poster, a soccer ball, superhero comic books, and what looks like a framed New England Patriots jersey. His fridge is stocked with little else but beer (Blue Moon Ale, but still…).
And yeah, the slightly nerdy, good-looking Ben is, as they say, straight acting.
Judging from the décor, it’s no surprise Ben lives alone. Emily, his pretty, doting girlfriend of five years, lives in nearby Cambridge (she’s getting a Ph.D. in bioinformatics at Harvard). She pushes for them to take their relationship to the next level and move in together, but Ben resists. She has a key to his place and is not afraid to use it without warning.
But Ben has a secret. He’s started inviting Chris, a boyishly charming Boston College undergrad, over to watch the Patriots and drink beers. And swap blowjobs. Perhaps they met via BRO, the new app designed for “straight” guys seeking other “straight” guys for sex.
What follows is a complex love story of sorts, fraught with lust and duplicity, building tension over whether Emily will find out and, if so, how she’ll react. Ben eloquently refers to their frantic little love triangle as “an emotional Ponzi scheme.”
This tight-as-a-drum production is well cast, with actors teasing out emotional depths from what could be cookie-cutter characters. Jake Epstein, fresh from his Broadway turn in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” is devilishly endearing as the deceitful, confused Ben, bent on clinging to heteronormativity and feeling trapped by labels.
“In our culture,” Ben laments, “the only way to be gay is to be all the way gay.”
Jenna Gavigan (“Gypsy”) does a fine job of balancing Emily’s ever-mounting desperation with grace notes of vulnerability. At first I thought Thomas E. Sullivan’s portrayal of the cocky, closeted Chris was a tad too self-conscious, but he loosened up as the play unfolded, just as Chris lets down his guard with Ben. Any starchiness is completely in character.
The steamy chemistry between the two young men — emotional as well as physical — is undeniable. Despite deep flaws, each of the three characters is so likable it’s difficult to choose sides.
The savvy, enthralling “Straight” makes a persuasive argument that there’s still plenty of urgent life left in the coming-out genre of queer theater. It’s refreshing to see a candid, sex-filled bromance thrown into the mix.
STRAIGHT | Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through May 8: Sun.-Tue. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.:Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79.50 at telecharge.com | Eighty-five mins., no intermission