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15 Minutes With: ‘Straight’ Playwrights Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola

March 9th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Fewer shows in recent Off Broadway history have been more provocative than Straight. The three-person play, set in contemporary Boston, is a complex love triangle between Ben (Jake Epstein), a 26-year-old closeted investment banker, his girlfriend, Emily (Jenna Gavigan), and his part-time male lover, Chris. (Thomas E. Sullivan). Without divulging major plot twists, suffice it to say that audiences are leaving the Acorn Theater with mixed emotions of shock, anger, disbelief, and in rare cases, uncomfortable laughter.

The Broadway Blog recently spoke over the phone with playwrights Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola to discuss their audacious new work.

Drew Fornarola

Drew Fornarola

Scott Elmegreen

Scott Elmegreen

BB: Where did you get the idea to write Straight

SE: It came to us a few years ago. It struck us that our favorite plays are only about a handful of things: family, race, class, and sexuality. We noted that sexuality, in particular, has been rapidly changing over the last 10 to 15 years. Ben’s journey is transgressive. That idea really lit us up and felt right for the stage. We thought that we could explore the issue of sexuality in new ways through the lens of this character and his perspective

BB:  Did you intend to write it so that audiences would have such extreme reactions? 

SE: I don’t know that we intended a particular audience reaction. We just wanted to tell an interesting dramatic story. The fact that audiences leave with a lot to talk about and continue the conversation long after they leave the theater is a good thing. We’re excited that it is happening.

BB: What reactions and comments have you heard? 

SE: We need to keep a list of things we’ve overheard

DF: Just yesterday, while the ending was happening, a lady in the audience turned to her friend and rather audibly said, “I can’t breathe!”

SE: Every performance so far has been met with collective gasps. It’s fun to see audiences so engaged by the material.

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: So, does anyone in this show really “win” in the end? 

SE: Hopefully, the audience. I don’t say facetiously, but people are leaving with varied ideas and opinions about how things turn out for these characters.

BB: LGBT people seem to be living in more affirming times, especially in major metropolitan areas. Why then do you think there is still a resistance for people to come out? In 2016, why are we still wrestling with whether or not it’s okay to be gay?  

SE: One of the things we’re excited about is that even as we continue win these cultural battles of accepting sexuality, there is still a personal journey involved. There is an extent to which we are defined by our sexuality as well. Ben knows that if people are aware that he is gay, they will view him differently, so he’s posing the question, “I don’t have to come out if I’m straight. Why do I have to come out because I’m gay?”

BB: Sure, but he’s also compartmentalizing his life, too. I left wondering if there is a moral and ethical responsibility that we have to let our significant others know what our persuasion is.

SE: People who are leaving the play who don’t like it are leaving with the assumption that the play thinks this way—or the play’s attitude is (fill in the blank). I don’t think that plays have opinions, but rather characters in plays have opinions. All three characters in this show have different world views and it is up to the audience to form their own opinions.

BB: Do you worry that younger audiences might misconstrue the message (whether intended or not) and leave with the impression that they should be ashamed of and hide their sexuality?

SE: I don’t. I think younger audiences have actually connected more easily. Older audiences walk away noticing that the state of affairs is not much more different now than it was when they came out. People kill each other in plays, but no one walks out believing that this is a good choice. This is more of a modern tragedy. We’ve died several deaths over the choices that we’ve made and Straight is just a modern way to convey that.

BB: True. And you’ve done a good job in balancing Ben’s apprehension to accept his sexuality and Chris’ laissez faire, nonchalant approach to it. 

SE: Thank you.

BB: Have you considered that Emily is aware that Ben is gay and is just in denial about it? 

SE: Yes. One of things that audiences talk about most is “How much does Emily know and how much does it play into her arc in this show?”

DF: Emily wants to end up with Ben and how far is she willing to go to make sure that it happens?

SE: And another issue is that Ben is cheating on Emily. People often say that they want the truth, but do they really want to know it?

BB: It must be a thrill for you both to have written a play that is sparking such thoughtful and opposing reactions.

SE: There’s also something to be said, sexuality aside, about the difficulties in choosing a life partner. Many people don’t always choose well. It’s difficult to put oneself in the shoes of a person dealing with that, but it’s valuable to have a conversation about the person with whom we share our life.

Straight
Acorn Theatre
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 at @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

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To Be (Gay) or Not to Be, That is the Question: ‘Straight’

February 29th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

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.

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

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.

Straight

Acorn Theatre
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