by Ryan Leeds
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.
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.
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.
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.