Reviewed by Will Stackman
Speakeasy Stage Company's opening effort this season is a creditable attempt to reach several constituencies. Like its season ending hit, "Take Me Out", "Theatre District" speaks to liberal concerns such as gay/straight relationships, parenting in this sometimes confusing time, and finally how to live ones life honestly. Playwright Richard Kramer uses formulas he's familiar with from television, plus multimedia interjections, to weave an entertaining urban comedy laced with carefully hidden common sense. The result can be deceptively light until the implications of his message about tolerance come across. Everyone in his drama survives; there are no villains, except perhaps society's expectations.
Director Wesley Savick has directed this short piece with a light hand, playing to the strengths of his ensemble, beginning with the show's titular star Bill Brochtrup who plays George as essentially the same concerned human being the actor portrayed on "NYPD Blue." He's very good at it. Savick also has the services of the two leads from last year's "Anna in the Tropics", versatile Melinda Lopez and solid Liam Torres. This time they're a divorced couple, who split up when husband Kenny came out. A high powered book editor, Lola's remarried to an eye surgeon, Ben, played by Barlow Adamson. He was last seen as Gabe in Gloucester's "Dinner with Friends." Torres, a lawyer, is living with Brochtrup, a former actor now a successful restaurant manager somewhere in the theatre district. Kenny and Lola's teenage son lives with his father during the week and with his mother on the weekend. Wesley, played by Edward Tournier, a recent BFA from BU, has a best friend who just came out while making a school election speech. Theo, played by Jaime Cepero III, who's working toward a BFA in Musical Theatre, is much more self-assured. The only real question of the play is "Is Wesley gay?" He obviously doesn't think so, though he relates better to George, his father's lover, than his busy rather straight father. The kid also gets along with George's actor friend, now the restaurant's maitre d', Mario, played with flamboyant irony by IRNE winner, Neil A. Casey. Wesley's working there part time for a really mundane reason.
The conceit behind this script is basically that everyone's acting, except perhaps Wesley, who hasn't figured out what his role is. How do we know who we are? Are we who are parents tell us we are? Do our friends define us? It would be very interesting to listen to a group of highschool students, especially those already involved in theatre, discuss this play. Older audiences will no doubt have much firmer opinions about the issues involved, especially if they haven't thought about them. They'd also probably get more of the jokes, however. Savick and his ensemble, which functions very much without any star turns, zip through "Theatre District"'s many scenes with dispatch, agilely shifting focus and location for less than ninety minutes. If lengthened, this play would benefit from more time for character development, not to mention an intermission. Kramer's future as a playwright may depend on getting beyond the time constraints of television writing.
Award-winning designer Jenna McFarland has created a versatile architectural set, raising the main acting area on a primary colored platform which creates the effect of a thrust stage in the Roberts. There's a balcony above which serves as various locations. The actors manipulate a tall scrim which separates the two at times, redefining the space as events unfold. There's also a high window stage right which doubles as a projection screen. At various times, there are clips from "A Nun's Story" with Audrey Hepburn plus recorded and live video,designed by Erin Turner, all integrated with fluid lighting by Ken Elliott, Production Coordinator at the Calderwood Pavilion, and effective sound design by Jeffrey Alan Jones. The result is a post-Modernist application of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt to this domestic comedy, which should clue the audience that the author has something more than entertainment in mind.
This play is a very canny drama given a first rate production by Speakeasy. "Theatre District" was first produced by Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2002, where it won the 2003 Jefferson for Best New Play Award. The show later played in L.A.at Black Dahlia with Brochtrup in his current role, though it's yet to be seen in NYC. While the gay/straight question is obviously central, this play also has a lot to say about conventions, theatrical and otherwise. Ultimately, George, for all his references to stage and screen, is perhaps the most grownup adult in the show. He's a rare example of the avuncular tradition on today's stage, and the fact that he's gay is peripheral to his real pedagogical function in the action. The contrast between his friend Mario's flamboyance, done with Casey's usual flair, and George's much quieter self-acceptance, bolstered by Brochtrup's stage presence reinforces this. "Theatre District" is not simply another gay play.