Is it a coincidence that these productions—one a celebration of honest gay bliss, the other an indictment of miserable straight duplicity—both opened on gay pride weekend? The first, Zanna, Don't!, is a high-school musical that cavorts sweetly, an innocent celebration of puppy love in all its flavors (mostly the gay ones). The second, Orange Flower Water (by Craig Wright), is a grim, slash-by-slash account of suburban hetero shame, with lies, affairs, abuse, and the despicable usage of children as emotional collateral.
The preshow tableau of Orange Flower Water tells you everything you need to know: two middle-aged straight couples, brooding in chairs at the far corners of the stage, with a queen-size bed (their battleground) in the center. Children's toys are strewn around the edges of the theater. Brightly lit but never referenced, these toys are symbolic hurdles—stumbling blocks for the married-with-children as they try to flee their domestic lives.
In the first scene, David the pharmacist (Hans Altwies) tries to seduce his friend's wife, Beth (Betsy Schwartz), in a game of make-believe:
These four walls. This picturesque Holiday Haven Motel. The cars outside in the parking lot. Highway 59. It's all... pixelating, like little dots on a computer screen... I want you to put all thoughts of this world out of your mind. And now the whole town of Pine City—Lake Melissa, Sundberg's Cafe, the Sandwich Hut, the Voyageur—is all falling, falling through the clouds, dropping through miles of clouds until you can't even see it anywhere, Beth, it's a speck, and then it's not even a speck, it's gone. Good-bye, Pine City.
But David's spell does not—cannot—work. What happens in the Holiday Haven Motel doesn't stay in the Holiday Haven Motel. In the counterpoint to the seduction scene, where Beth finally leaves Brad (a brutish, angry video-store owner played by Ray Gonzalez), he shouts: "You're the one who said shit has to actually happen! All I'm saying is, walk out the door and things will start to actually fucking happen!"
The Sturm und Drang is all in the breakup: the couples negotiating the terms of their separation (one fights, one fucks), a vicious failure at reconciliation between the soccer moms at a kids' game ("So it'll be just you and David," David's ex archly asks Beth: "Because you should know he's had a low sperm count for years"), and a mild fight while Beth and David try to find a new love nest that will accommodate their respective broods.
The script doesn't get its tentacles too deeply into the fraught material. Wright's characters don't always ascend—or descend—to the condition of being human. Orange Flower Water is sometimes the reverse of a Moonie wedding, with everyone getting divorced: The scale is impressive, but it's hard to become too invested in any of the individuals involved. They're all jerks, but they aren't interesting jerks.
The production, however, outshines the play. Director Allison Narver fills each scene with its own gravity and intensity—any could be its own short play (or song by the Mountain Goats), where the quiet horror of romantic conflagration occasionally flares up through the floorboards. On the sidelines of a kids' soccer match, David pretends not to notice the hints that Brad keeps dropping about infidelity. They both know they know what's going on, but neither has the guts to say it.
When Brad and Beth finally duke out their separation—he is wearing a barbecue apron and holding a spatula, she is carrying her see-you-never luggage—the fire beneath the floorboards explodes. In an uncharacteristic burst of rage, the normally hesitant Beth shouts: "Every time you touch me, it feels like I'm being raped!"
"I'll throw you right now and fuck you right now, you fucking cunt!" Brad bellows. "I oughta screw you right through this bed and straight down to hell where you came from, you fucking cunt!"
The actors play their parts beautifully: Altwies is all sorrowful lust; Gonzalez is dark, handsome, and full of impotent rage; Schwartz is tearful and confused as she leaves one husband for another. Jennifer Lee Taylor, as the abandoned Cathy, mournfully demands one last fuck before David walks out the door. (That sex, sadly, is one of the production's weakest scenes. For such a moment of conflicted passion, it was one of the least charged—especially the mid-coital conversation about the Whole Foods parking lot.)
Orange Flower Water is the second outing for the ambitious New Century Theatre Company. Their first production, a haunting, noir version of The Adding Machine—chiaroscuro design, glaring spotlights, the electric chair—was an invitation to a nightmare. Orange Flower Water's nightmare is less searing, more mundane.
If Orange Flower Water is a heterosexual house of horrors, Zanna, Don't! is a quick and giddy log flume into a pool of glitter. A queer inversion of every teen-romance comedy from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Grease, Zanna, Don't! begins in Heartsville High, an effervescent place where everyone's as gay as a purse of parrots, chess players are the sex symbols, and football jocks are nobodies. (In two numbers, a group of gay militants sing "Be a Man," about the great gay leaders of Western civilization—da Vinci, Alexander the Great, the Spartans—and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a song about straight soldiers forced to hide their love.)
The good fairy Zanna (a sprightly Justin Huertas) flits through this gay paradise, uniting unlikely couples in song: "I seek out the truth, I'm a love sleuth/I'm goin' undercover for a lover who might not find another." The football dork Steve (Jared Michael Brown) falls in taboo, hetero love with overachiever Kate (Sarah Davis), and Zanna comes to the rescue. Zanna, Don't! is satire of teen-hetero romance throughout history, but it's gentle satire, universally affectionate to its subjects and their hackneyed heterosexual forerunners. Neither raunchy nor pedantic, Tim Acito's musical is a sweet and light thought experiment in gay hegemony. It doesn't look so bad.
Confidential to Michael Jackson mourners: This Friday, July 3, Fremont will try to dance its way into a Guinness World Record with a "Thriller" dance-off at 9 pm at 3501 Phinney Ave N. See www.fremontoutdoormovies.com for more information.