Walking through the doors of Inscape Arts—the old INS building just south of Chinatown-International District—plopping down in a padded folding chair, and taking in a stage scattered with badly painted backdrops and props filled my heart with a strange kind of hope.
Maybe—despite my instincts, and despite everything that the scenic design was telling me—this shoestring production of Noël Coward's Private Lives, which runs at the Slate Theater through May 20, could be good?
My sympathies were all on the side of the play. The power of good acting and good writing, after all, can transcend even the most slapdash of stages. Recent shows like That'swhatshesaid, Puny Humans, and Waning prove you can do a lot of work with very limited resources, and the worlds into which audiences descend really do live in the words and gestures of the characters.
And there's certainly some opportunity for good acting and good writing in Coward's Private Lives, a fast-talking, gossipy 1930s comedy written by a semi-closeted gay genius about horrible upper-middle-class people. Stuff written by semi-closeted gay geniuses in the first part of the 20th century is the best! I think of Frank O'Hara, C.P. Cavafy, H.D., Lorraine Hansberry, and William Inge.
The play's premise: Elyot (Kit Lascher) and Amanda (Isis Phoenix) were once in a toxic marriage. They physically and emotionally abused each other. But, you know, there was passion. After their divorce, they each married normies: Sybil (Alysha Curry) and Victor (Jesse Calixto), respectively. On their honeymoon, Elyot and Amanda wind up booking neighboring hotel rooms. The two meet by chance on a moonlit balcony. High jinks ensue.
Aside from enjoying the high-octane wit, the play ultimately offers a bleak, cynical take on the staying power of first loves. The first person you fall in love with has an advantage, because the motions of love feel novel: the adoption of a love song, the first three months where you just have sex and drink a lot, the first few arguments, the first few makeup sessions, etc. Going through that process all over again with someone else reveals committed relationships as some kind of business enterprise and not a romantic practice ordained by the mysterious universe or a flying cherubic baby or whatever. That sad critique of monogamy is really interesting, especially slipped into a class comedy that's just supposed to be kinda fun!
And Reboot Theatre's production of the play promised to, as they say in their mission statement, test "new interpretations of established works through nontraditional casting, design, and methods yet to be discovered." In this case, they "reimagined the male protagonist, Elyot, as a trans man" and cast Lascher, a genderqueer actor, to play him.
Throughout the script, Elyot says he wants learn to "smoke a pipe," raises an eyebrow when he says the word "gay," says he and Amanda used to "live in sin," and claims to have the same feminine intuition as the women who canceled their tickets to ride on the Titanic.
In Reboot's production, Elyot is now a trans man (so sayeth director Jasmine Joshua) who is attracted to women, but the lines that read as gay subtext are pretty much the same. So Elyot is a trans man who is also in the closet as bisexual? That's a deep and fascinating closet, but Joshua's ability to explore that is limited by the fact that the gay material is subtext in Coward's script in the first place.
But the show's main problem is the pacing in the second act is deadly slow, and the good performances only come from Phoenix and Calixto. Unlike the other actors during the performance I saw, Phoenix and Calixto never get caught trying to catch up to the speed of the dialogue. The production's chief delight is watching Phoenix, in her role as Amanda, luxuriating in her power to manipulate the men in her life using her humor and strength. During one of her lingerie-clad scuffles with Elyot, for instance, she grabs him by the collar and yells in his face like a lion. While Phoenix shows she can banter just as well as she can roar, Calixto totally embodies Victor's comically stiff persona, never once bending under the weight of what should be, for him, a devastating emotional situation.