by Ryan Leeds
I hope that Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola have thick skins. As authors of the new off Broadway play, Straight, they should brace themselves for a flood of comments, both exalting and excoriating their work. While I continue to dissect it in my own head, I’d like to straddle the fence and view it from two angles.
Straight takes place in Ben’s (Jake Epstein) current day Boston apartment (impressively designed by Charlie Corcoran). As a beer drinking, sports watching, investment banker with a girlfriend named Emily (Jenna Gavigan) , Ben lives the life of a stereotypical heterosexual man—except for the fact that he’s met Chris (Thomas E. Sullivan), an openly gay man who fulfills his physical desires. What begins as random hook-ups between the two quickly develops into a more emotional connection and Ben is faced with the dilemma to disclose the truth about his sexuality to Emily. He doesn’t want to label himself as a gay man. Emily encourages the two to move in together, but Ben is apprehensive.
There is no easy solution and Elmegreen and Fornarola intentionally don’t provide any clear answers. However, many questions are raised: Is it acceptable to receive emotional fulfillment from one partner and physical fulfillment from another? Is honesty truly the best policy if it means that we will hurt those closest to us? Most importantly, in 2016, why are we even questioning whether homosexuality is okay? To that end, enter the excoriation.
The underlying message here is that gay is not okay. In order to maintain order in our lives, we must lead lives of deception. This is a dangerous message to convey, especially to young audiences who are struggling with the coming out process. Another major loophole is Emily’s reaction to stumbling upon her half-dressed boyfriend and underwear-clad Chris. Ben uses the excuse that Chris “just crashed” because they were watching “the game.” Emily doesn’t even flinch. In fact, she cooks Chris breakfast while Ben rushes off to work.
As for the exaltation, we can look at this as a character study. Those of us who feel comfortable in our own skins will likely find the closeted and anguished life of an independent metropolitan next to impossible. Sadly, such individuals exist. We need not look much further than recent headlines to acknowledge the dual lives of politicians caught in same-sex scandals. It’s difficult to empathize with other’s internal struggles when we’ve long evolved from our own. For that reminder, I applaud the playwrights.
Epstein, Gavigan, and Sullivan handle the controversial material with ease, and although there is no offense meant here, it is sure to polarize. The provocative work would prove more effective without the dippy musical interludes that minimize it to the level of an after-school special. Still, it accomplishes important objectives of theater, which are to create dialogue and perceive other’s lives through a lens other than our own.
410 West 42nd Street
Through May 8
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook