"Why is it that a straight guy is just a guy, but a gay guy is a 'gay guy?'"
Straight's unflinching questions about sexuality
New York theatregoers are normally an unflappable lot, but during a recent performance of Straight, a young audience member beside me loudly gasped during a crucial scene. I was momentarily disoriented myself, though we may have been surprised for different reasons. After all, the moment didn't push the typical shock buttons, the way a thriller might: Instead, it shed light on the audiences' varied perceptions and expectations. All of us were left to decide if the play had a twist or had always been incredibly clear.
"I've never been in anything before in which every night, there are audible gasp reactions—something that clearly shakes them," says actor Thomas E. Sullivan. "We get lots of sounds," adds actress Jenna Gavigan. "People even comment throughout the show."
Once houselights go up at The Acorn at Theatre Row, audiences may find themselves mentally shuffling through details of the drama and engaging in immediate debate over their Rashomon-like experiences. And that's the point. Written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, Straight thrives on ambiguity, asking how susceptible the characters – or any of us – are to denial.
The central character is Ben (Jake Epstein), a Bostonian investment banker in a relationship with Emily (Gavigan), a PhD candidate in genetics. The couple has visions of marriage, family, and financial security, but at the same time, Ben is exploring another side of his sexuality with Chris (Sullivan), a free-spirited college student.
This might seem like a straightforward case of a gay man masquerading as a straight man. However, when Chris confronts Ben on his reluctance to come out, Ben counters with an argument on the potentially corrosive effect of labeling one's sexual identity, even in today's ostensibly open-minded society.
L to R: Thomas E. Sullivan and Jake Epstein
"[Ben]'s looking at his sexuality not through the angle of fear of judgment, but through the angle of fear of definition," Epstein says. "He doesn't want to be seen – or more importantly, labeled – as a gay man. Once I understood that argument, that was the engine that drove my character. It's an intricate argument I'd never thought of before. It asks the question, 'Why is it that a straight guy is just a guy, but a gay guy is a gay guy?' And I connect with that argument."
Epstein notes that talkbacks with the audience have helped him see new facets to Ben's argument. "People have been very vocal about their feelings," he says. "People understand different sides of the story in different ways, which is fair. I personally have had a few men come up to me and say, 'That was my story.' It's humbling to hear that."
No matter how they interpret their characters' behavior, though, the actors agree that these people sincerely care for each other. "That's ultimately what makes it so heartbreaking," Epstein says. "There are issues in the play that are difficult because it's not always where people want it to go. That's where the message in the story lies."
Or as Gavigan says, "It's just life."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Straight. Go here to browse our current offers
Jeff Potter is an arts journalist and musician living in Washington Heights.
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top photo: The cast of Straight.