Monday, June 20, 2016

Review - Le Switch - Jungle Theater - All The Reasons You Should See This Play Even Though It Drives Me Crazy - 5 stars

As intermission drew to a close for Philip Dawkins’ play Le Switch at the Jungle Theater, a friend told me, “You’re not allowed to write anything bad about this play.”  I jokingly responded that I saw no reason to, everything was going great so far, “But they’ve still got the second act to screw it up.”  Why do I say things like that out loud?  They never end well.  Still, it’s often the sign of a good play if I find myself ranting about it for an hour and a half afterward, dissecting it all with another friend, trying to figure out why I suddenly turned against it when I started out liking it so much.

“I say this from the very heart of my bottom.”

Le Switch begins after New York state passed marriage equality into law, but before 2015 when the Supreme Court made it a nationwide reality.  David (Kasey Mahaffey) is drafted into his best friend Zachary (Michael Wieser)’s wedding party.  When they head up to Canada for a double bachelor party blowout, David gets lost in transit and finds himself stopping at a flower stand looking for a gift before he links up again with the grooms.  There he meets and is immediately smitten with the florist Benoit (Michael Hanna), and they end up wandering the streets, talking and getting to know one another, until the sun comes up the next morning.  Benoit needs to keep going back and forth from his native French to the English he uses for the tourists (the literal “le switch” of the title) in order to keep their communication flowing.

“Why pick a side when you can straddle?”

Before Benoit appears in David’s life, the play goes about establishing David’s difficulty with relationships.  David and his twin sister Sarah (Emily Gunyou Halaas) have a rather jaundiced view of marriage because of the less than perfect example set by their now-divorced parents.  David and Sarah’s pact never to marry is showing some cracks, however, because Sarah’s green card marriage of convenience to a soccer player from Africa is developing some genuine feeling between the two.  On the flipside of things, David has a positive example of a loving relationship that seems nearly impossible to match - his friend and current roommate Frank (Patrick Bailey).  Frank and his late partner Danny were surrogate parents to David and were together for many years until Danny died of cancer.  They weren’t married, it was never an option.  But their devotion to one another was just as genuine as if they’d had a license and a ceremony.  Frank is hobbled by grief, still, which is why David took him in, but most days, most of the time, Frank can put on a brave, and comic, face.

“The Associated Press is no longer condemning the use of the word ‘hopefully’.”

Philip Dawkins’ script is smart and hilarious.  The cast is fantastic, each and every one, under Jeremy B. Cohen’s direction.  Kate Sutton-Johnson’s scenic design of many moving parts practically dances - and it has to, in order to deal with the multiple locations (and countries) this story bounds around between.  John Novak’s properties make all the locations seem real and lived in without weighing the whole thing down with any unnecessary clutter.  Novak is also the stage manager who, along with his run crew, has to keep the many different plates spinning - dizzying set changes; dazzling light, sound and projection cues.  Sean Healey (sound), Barry Browning (lights) and Daniel Benoit (projections) all use their design to flesh out the world around the handful of characters in the play so it all feels plugged into our larger reality, rather than people isolated in a little box telling one another stories.  Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes do that weird intangible thing that all the best costume designs do - the clothes seem like clothes the people on stage would wear, rather than costumes they put on.  The costumes blend with and support the performances.  It’s a strange thing I only notice after the fact “Hey, those clothes were really perfect, because they didn’t draw attention to themselves as something outside the story.”

“Staying married is a lot harder than getting married.”

The sequence where David and Benoit meet and then go wandering together is a pitch perfect evocation of that kind of dreamy, otherworldly, non-reality people can find themselves in, if they’re lucky - when they meet someone that rearranges the chemicals in their brain and that person goes straight to their heart.  And the opening of the second act jumps forward in time two years in a way that is so simple and elegant, I nearly cried. Just lovely.  And then the rest of the second act happened.

“He loved ‘Romeo and Juliet’ - everyone loses.”

See, if you’re looking for an audience for a romantic comedy, I’m your man.  And a gay romantic comedy, sign me up, absolutely.  Le Switch also has a great cross section of different types and generations of gay men that I really admire - with Frank representing the post-Stonewall generation, Zachary doing the fabulous lumbersexual thirtysomething thing, David taking on the mantle of the intellectual in his 30s, and Benoit being the more laid back 20ish generation that doesn’t fret so much about labels.  Is poor Sarah the lone island of estrogen in this tale?  Yeah, but that’s the risk you run focusing a story on gay men (just like men would be in short supply if Le Switch were about lesbians instead).  Is the cast a little blindingly white?  Sure, but I’m not gonna ding the Jungle for that one.  I seem to recall early press information included an actor of color but he’s in demand right now so he probably just got a better deal they needed to release him to pursue.  Plus, they started the season with an all-female multiracial Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the final two plays of the season prominently feature characters of color, so the Jungle’s doing well on the diversity front.  That’s not my problem.

“Sh*t.  *I’m* the lonely businesswoman.”

The problem is that the great obstacle to David and Benoit’s potential relationship in this story is the fact that David has his head lodged so far up his own ass, and so firmly, that he is unable to allow himself or anyone else be happy.  To the point where you honestly wonder, what does Benoit see in David?  What is attracting him to this person who keeps pushing him away?  (In this way, it’s a lot like Next Fall, even though Le Switch is a much, MUCH better play than Next Fall - so, progress.)  It’s not the actors’ fault.  Mahaffey is great as David - I wouldn’t want to shake the character so hard his teeth rattled if the actor wasn’t bringing him so fully to life in all his prickly glory.  Same with Hanna as Benoit - he could be too good to be true, but except for his baffling devotion to David, the character seems fully realized and well-rounded (and let’s face it, no one in this cast of characters is hard on the eyes, from Frank to Sarah to Zachary to David to Benoit).

“People who love each other sometimes split the utility bill.”

But David doesn’t grow.  He doesn’t change.  Even though literally everyone else around him does.  He hasn’t earned a happy ending.  He doesn’t deserve one.  He’s done nothing to convince me that Benoit doesn’t deserve better.  And yet David’s supposed to be our lead character.  He’s the one we’re supposed to be rooting for.  The one exception to his generally self-absorbed demeanor is when it becomes apparent right at the top of act two that David is trying to learn some French to better communicate with Benoit.  That’s part of the reason I nearly cried.  It’s all downhill from there.

“You’re a terrible liar.  Keep going.”

There’s three delusions I wish storytellers could be broken of somehow.  The first delusion is that New York City is the center of the known universe.  I have a friend who specifically looks for new plays that are not set in New York City.  We understand, you like your city.  It takes a special kind of person to live there.  We are not all that person.  New York as a default setting for all human drama borders on lazy.  People use it as shorthand assuming we all know and we all care.

“As God as my witness, I shall never go LARPing again.”

The second delusion is that neurotic intellectuals are naturally interesting and lovable.  Again, shorthand you can just plop into a story and everyone will go along with it.  Sorry, there have to be some additional redeeming qualities involved - and I don’t just mean they have to be played by cute actors who can take off their glasses and wow, what do you know, they were hot all along under those frames.  Your neurosis doesn’t make you interesting, it makes you exhausting to be around.

“Sit down.  Let me tell you everything that’s wrong with you.”

The final delusion is that there is an unlimited number of people in your life who will find you adorable and want to have sex with and/or devote their life to you.  That is a finite resource.  (The subset of those people who will be 12 years your junior with abs you can actually see, that’s even more finite.) You can burn through dozens of them if you want to with no thought to the consequences, but eventually you are going to run out.  And you’re not going to get any warning.  There will come a day when people no longer look at you on the street.  There will come a day when people still see you as a person, but give no thought to you as a sexual being at all.  The character of David is fast approaching that boundary, but seems completely oblivious to it.  (It's ridiculous to say that, I know.  He's just in his mid-30s.  But AIDS massacred a whole generation of gay men, so we're a couple of decades behind the eight ball in learning how to get older - and deal with older people - gracefully.) Any number of people around David are aware and could clue him in (especially Frank), but it just doesn’t penetrate David's consciousness.  The levels of unacknowledged privilege and entitlement involved here are staggering.  At one point in the play, someone (I believe David) actually says aloud the words “You don’t know what you have.”  It’s not in regard to a person but it could be.  Obviously, that’s deliberate, but it’s about all the time the play spends on the idea.

I’m reminded of Rosalind’s advice to Phoebe in As You Like It:
“But, mistress, know yourself. Down on your knees
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love,
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.”

There’s a ticking clock in this play.  There’s mortality in this play.  There are milestones of life and the passage of time in this play.  But David never seems affected by it.  He just magically comes to his senses right before the play’s about to end, Benoit makes yet another gesture in David’s direction, and with precious little in the way of explanation, David just takes it and gets his happy ending.  Do I want a gay play with an unhappy ending?  No, no I don’t.  We’ve got PLENTY of those in the canon, thank you very much.  So yes, I’m glad we got a happy ending.  I just didn’t see our lead character work for it, so I have to wonder whether it’s going to stick.

“Do you want me to be happy, or do you want me to be married?”

All that said, so much of the script and all of Jungle Theater’s production of Le Switch is so good, you have to see it.  It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s dazzling, it’s sweet.  It frustrates me enormously, but it’s just so great to see a new play so expertly acted and directed and designed that celebrates love between people that I’m still giving the damn thing five stars.  Le Switch is a rare thing, and it deserves to be embraced for all the many things it gets right.  Forgive me for letting it set my expectations so high that I want just a little more.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo by Dan Norman, courtesy of Jungle Theater - the fantastic ensemble cast of Le Switch - l to r: Frank Bailey, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Kasey Mahaffey, Michael Hanna, Michael Wieser)

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