Veteran playwright Brian Merriman has done it again.
His new one act, “Straight Acting,” is thoughtful, engaging, articulate, funny, and exquisitely well-crafted in the tradition of “situational comic drama,” which brings to mind “comedies of manners” like “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Pygmalion,” and quite possibly the entire first season of “Downton Abbey” if you don’t take all the bed-hopping and the clothes-changing too seriously. Underscoring the humour in the “situational” genres, however, lurks vast opportunity for mounting challenges to the social status quo that produced those “situations” in the first place, with the concomitant invitation for the author to make a fair bit of serious political commentary.
Merriman’s new work, while deeply entertaining, takes every single advantage of every single one of those subtle and sometimes subterranean opportunities to gleefully disrupt the heteronormative narrative of what it means to be “a man” in today’s society, breaking open gender stereotypes on both sides of the gay/straight divide…which, as it turns out, is not such a wide chasm, after all.
Merriman’s classical education in dramatic structure is a sometimes surprising ally in achieving this mental upheaval. “Situational comedic drama” depends on devising plausible plot developments in unexpected ways and places for a set of fundamentally contrasting characters – it rests of the writer’s ability to being able to make improbable events seem not just possible, but actually inevitable. A kind of carefully choreographed free-fall lands people who have no business being in the same room together into an enforced proximity, which is when the fun really starts….
…and “Straight Acting” is fun, make no mistake. It’s cast perfectly, with two superb actors who rise to the challenge of playing two actors easily and gracefully. Strong performances by both Malone and Cyr-Cooke make the core and crucial implausibility of the epically awkward situation in which their characters find themselves not just “believable,” but empathetic in a way that has the audience rooting for both of them. Deft directing and the simple, yet evocative set, lighting, and audio design complete the sense of storytelling satisfaction this play promises, and then delivers in spades, leaving the opening night audience applauding wildly and this reviewer realizing that I didn’t have any notes to work from because I literally could not tear my eyes away from the stage long enough to write them.
Complementing “Straight Acting’s” stylistic romp, however, is that underground river of social commentary, pushing for change in cultural constructions of masculinity, which bubbles up and across the surface of the narrative action at key moments. As the two characters struggle and lurch and grope (occasionally literally) towards their common goal, approaching it from what seems like the opposite ends of the Earth, each of their separate odysseys provokes different questions about love and friendship, sex and intimacy, achievement and ambition, desire and solitude. And, yes, about women, too. This is a play for men of all intimate preferences; it’s about recognizing the community of emotional resources that are theoretically available to all, but which men, as Merriman’s actors explore, so often deny themselves.
To the detriment of all, this play reminds us, including the women in men’s lives, no matter what role they may occupy. This a play for everyone, not just for men, although clearly that is the main focus. No matter what your orientation, see this play and bring friends who may not share it. It’ll make for a great conversation at the after-party…and food for thought, for a very long time.
Merriman set out to write a true comedy, in the style of high and intelligent social farce, and he did. “Straight Acting” is 50 minutes of sheer delight. But it’s also an incisive and eloquent statement about “what could be,” for his characters, and for us all.