Since assuming artistic control of Rhubarb Theater in 2009, Trish Crist has found a welcoming place for her own writing, and the company's latest production, 41, is her third full-length play. The script revolves around societal issues of individual freedom and tolerance, with the title deriving from the 41st anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village — what one of Crist's characters terms the "Rosa Parks on the bus moment" of the gay rights movement.
The curtain rises on middle-aged brother and sister Demetrius ("Dee") and Lolly, native Nashvillians who are sharing an evening of alcohol, laughter and reminiscences. The giddy siblings' reunion is obviously meaningful and heartfelt, yet the playfulness — including a game of Jenga — turns more serious when Lolly begins to inquire about Dee's life in the late '60s and early '70s, after he had moved to New York City.
Dee takes Lolly and the audience on a verbal tour of his wilder, younger days, when folks seemed more interested in causes, and when sex partners were "transient and abundant." This leads to a discussion of Dee's gayness, though his ultimate message seems more about respecting individuals in general, with Lolly chiming in about contemporary trends in youth and their showier but seemingly less sincere stances on sexuality, activism and personal expression.
Act 2 finds Dee in a dream that conjures his younger self and a devoted friend, as they were in the Stonewall era. The dream sequence brings to life some of the tales related by Dee in Act 1, plus it affords him the opportunity to reconnect with his vital past.
An evocative Baby Boomer-ish soundtrack helps push events along, and Crist, who also directs, elicits warmly effective performances from Dan McGeachy and Lisa Marie Wright in the leads, plus good support in the dream sequence from Chris Basso, Wilhelm Peters and Billy Rosenberg.
Lest anyone be misled, 41 isn't really a play that boldly hoists the banner of GLBT liberation. Overt politicization is avoided — this is mostly a story that plays off of upbeat characterizations and low-conflict relationships. Crist has a gift for writing dialogue, and her dramatis personae say things naturally, their attitudes and feelings ringing true enough.
Yet as issues-oriented theater, 41 falls flat. Though competent and socially relevant, it never heads toward anything particularly dramatic. We celebrate these people and the things that matter to them, but the Stonewall aspect is never really fleshed out. It's pleasant theater, but with surprisingly little bite.
For sheer entertainment, theatergoers might find more intriguing fare with Actors Bridge Ensemble's production of Craig Lucas' Reckless, performed through Aug. 1 at Belmont's Black Box Theatre.
Lucas' playfully absurd script follows the adventures of a young mother named Rachel, who flees her home on Christmas because her husband has paid for a hit on her life. Thrust into the snow in her housecoat and slippers, our heroine, played by the plucky Brooke Bryant, is rescued by a fellow named Lloyd. Rachel moves in with Lloyd and his wheelchair-bound wife, Pooty, and from there, her life takes on a picaresque quality, with Lucas — author of the equally fanciful Prelude to a Kiss — throwing her into strange episodes that include a suspicious public service organization, a cheesy game show, sudden deaths, strange coincidences and trips to multiple therapists.
A suitably eccentric supporting cast — including David McGinnis, Andrea Ridge, Dave Shetler and Kathryn Crisp — interacts with Bryant on Liz Mosiman's cartoonish but pliable set, while sound designer Cody Dermon provides incidental music that shifts between holiday classics and generically corny selections.
Jessika Malone directs, and her pacing is generally very good. The play's long single act lurches back and forth through many scene changes and plot surprises, with the zany text landing softly and affectingly all the way to the conclusion, an unexpected Hallmark moment.
Lucas' writing here brings to mind the offbeat works of David Lindsay-Abaire (Kimberly Akimbo, Rabbit Hole), but in fact this piece, originally presented in 1983, well predates those of his fellow absurdist.
As successful summertime diversion, Reckless proves to be wryly reliable.
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