by Samuel L. Leiter
Stories about the fluidity of gender identity seem currently to be the coin of the media realm, and not only because of Caitlyn Jenner. Ever since 1970, when Myra Breckinridge introduced mainstream cinema to a leading character who had undergone a sex change, theater, films, and TV have found slow but steady inspiration in gender bending stories, with characters ranging across the spectrum from cross-dressers to people choosing sex reassignment surgery. Current interest, including Broadway and Off Broadway shows, seems especially high. The newfound celebrity of several transgender actors has even led to criticism of cisgender actors like Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) for taking roles away from them as indicated in stories that appeared on The Huffington Post and Time.com, among others.
So what does Would You Still Love Me If…, a new work written by John S. Anastasi, and both starring and directed by Kathleen Turner (who took over from Nona Rogers during rehearsals), offer that sets it off from the pack? Not much, really. The main twist is that the person trapped in the wrong gender’s body is a woman, Danya (Sofia Jean Gomez), living with Addison (Rebecca Brooksher), a writer, in what most people, including Addison, would consider a lesbian relationship. Danya, however, is going to do all she can to disabuse her partner of that notion.
When the play begins, Danya and Addison have just had sex, but Addison isn’t thrilled that Danya was wearing a strap-on dildo. Addison gets a call confirming her application to adopt a child, a process she’s concealed from Danya, who’s angry at Addison’s secrecy (as she damned well should be). Danya begins a childhood game in which one person asks the other if they’d still love the other if there were something radically different about them, such as becoming obese or disfigured, but Danya never asks whether Addison would still love her if she became a man, a plan that’s Danya’s big secret.
Addison discovers Danya’s secret, instead, from Danya’s perplexed but well-meaning mother, Victoria (Kathleen Turner), an act that drives a wedge between Victoria and her daughter. The play’s other important relationship is between Danya and Dr. Gerard (Roya Shanks), the imperious surgeon who will be responsible for Danya’s transition, whose own love life with someone she changed from a woman to man has crashed, and whose private life will soon intersect with Danya’s. (Shanks replaced Deborah Cox, which may account for her one-note performance, although few actors could make this phony character believable.)
Anastasi’s script is schematic and predictable, the dialogue stiff and stagey, and the air rife with clichés and soap opera. When a playwright uses a common expression like “pièce de résistance,” and has a writer character ask for an explanation because she doesn’t speak French, you know he’s in over his head. Still, some of the exchanges about sexuality and medical procedures are interesting, and the brisk pace and slick, if not particularly convincing, performances help keep the piece afloat during its 90 intermissionless minutes.
Turner is noteworthy more because of her familiar presence and voice than for anything unique she brings to her supporting role as the confused mom. As Danya, the willowy, delicately featured Gomez is not ideal casting, which is especially obvious following Danya’s transition to Daniel, when she appears dressed as a man and is supposed to be so manlike that Addison doesn’t recognize her.
Most disappointing of the mediocre technical elements is Brian Prather’s set, consisting of little more than a nondescript, pale blue backdrop and scenic props constantly shifted on and off in silhouette to represent the various locales.
There’s not much to love in Would You Still Love Me If…
Would You Still Love Me If…
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street, NYC
Through October 26
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).