by John Kuntz
Directed by Matt August
Featuring Brooks Ashmankas, Benjamin Evett, & Bill Mootos
Next Stages at Boston Playwrights' Theatre
949 Comm. Ave . Boston / (617) 499-7785

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Opening a new play in the summer, particularly the first week in August, may seem a bit quixotic, particularly when the audience most interested may be out on the Cape somewhere between Wellfleet and Provincetown. On the other hand, there's not much competition and some very good actors might be available. Coverage in a lot of papers, especially if you're a local favorite who's just outshone an established actor in Shakespeare on the Common is likely, though it ups the stakes. Billed as "a killer new love story", John Kuntz's black comedy thriller will probably pack them in on Comm. Ave through the middle of August, even while the author, who was playing Fluellen in Henry V on opening night, and who will be opening one of his one-man shows, "St*rf*ckers"--as one paper billed it-- at St. Marks in the East Village as part of the New York International Fringe Festival before "Jump Rope" closes. This festival, incidentally, is not to be confused with the Midtown International Fringe Festival, helmed by John Chatterton, which just closed. Also Kuntz's NYC show is directed by Steven Maler, who was just responsible for Henry V.

The digressions above have nothing on the structure of this three man piece which opened last night. "Jump Rope" is seems at first glance to be about growing problems in a thirteen year partnership between Martin, played by A.R.T. veteran Benjamin Evett and IRNE award-winner Bill Mootos as Alex. In a series of short scenes which shift from holiday to holiday, various strains in their relationship are evident. But between these brief scenes, Brooks Ashmankas, last seen in town as Sosia in the Huntington's "Amphytrion", is vigorously jumping rope all over the place. He seems to be in some sort of limbo and his workout music is Blondie's "One Way or Another". Just to complicate things, there are intermittent reports that a serial killer is at large killing gay men in their thirties.

We eventually discover that Ashmankas' character, Kurt, is a working stiff with an active and perennially unsuccessful sex life who delivers bottled water to the door. There is something strange about him, beyond the fact that we learn he is a cross-dresser. Just how strange things get would be to give away the eventual denouement . Suffice it to say that one potential criticism of this script is that all the pieces don't quite fit together. Clues dropped early in the action get lost in the complications of the gay lives these characters lead. Add to that each person’s difficult history and things get a bit muddled, despite director Matt August's efforts to orchestrate all the intercut scenes.

The cast is convincing. It's clear that there's a deep understanding of the potential torments their characters may undergo being out in society, and trying to function in the gay world. No one is quite what they seem; all the revelations are acceptable, if slightly forced. Mootos makes Alex, who is clearly on the make, seductive and slightly despicable. Evett finds a deep sadness in Martin which grows until the climax. Ashmankas has a goofy grin, and some really surprising direct speeches to the audience. His relationship to each of the others is subtly different. While the play requires accepting the action as real, the structure of the play is linear but not realistic. Various clever staging techniques, which probably seem only natural to an writer used to playing all the characters in his pieces, enhance the drama, and make the potentially grim finale all the more peculiar, particularly given who has the last word.

There can be difficulties in writing a play which makes such complex use of a subculture, and Kuntz's wry observations, which obviously delight those in the know, may work against the action now and then. But the basic premise could probably be done with an all-lesbian cast, and even with a mixed couple at the center with either a bisexual man or woman as the outsider would suit the action. Only a few jokes would have to be adjusted to the circumstances. The script is intriguing, and the production, on an elegantly spare set by scenic artist Cristina Todesco, well lit by Nicole Pearce, is a great first outing for play which may need to be tweaked here and there, but which could show up on other stages within the year.

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