Thursday, October 26, 2006

In Public

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

-Oscar Wilde

Years ago, I had a friend who was engaged. One summer, he started hanging out incessantly with this new girl. By incessantly, I mean, Every Single Night. He wasn't the cheating type, and years later I spoke with the girl who assured me (quite convincingly) that nothing happened between the two of them. But I definitely found it odd that he was ostensibly going on "dates" with this person.

Had my friend actually crossed a line here? I'm reasonably certain that his fiancée would not be too pleased that he was spending so much time with this new girl either way. But maybe it was completely harmless: maybe he just wanted to flirt with a new girl before walking down the aisle, just as a last farewell to single life.

There's absolutely no way of knowing, of course. This was his private life that I did not have access to.

That's the most immediate real-life parallel I can make with George Hunka's excellent new play, In Public, playing for only three more nights at manhattantheatresource. This is a play about people in relationships crossing the line of fidelity. Or at least, tempted to come as close to the line as possible, which can be just as bad.

Taking some cues from the Harold Pinter one-act, "The Collection" (which is about a woman teasing her husband about an affair with another man that may or may not have happened), though very much standing on its own, In Public is about two married couples and possibly an infidelity between them. Or two. Or none. It's never made clear. We only see these characters in public places throughout the show - in bars, restaurants and drug stores - so we never see what goes on "behind closed doors," so to speak. They have to keep their game faces on, as they're often interrupted by the outside world (played by Nosedive veteran Brian Silliman). The play shows the passive-aggressive jabs, the thinly veiled threats, the venom disguised as humor between married couples that are meeting in public places and can't quite be themselves.

This really is an excellent show. Very subtle, very honest and very funny. George writes from a very truthful place and Isaac Butler's direction is very in-step with the slight nuances and cadences of the script.

The actors are also outstanding. Though playing someone more than ten years his senior, Daryl Lathon aptly plays Drew, a 40 year-old art history professor who insists on presenting himself as a superior intellect, regardless of the situation. Jennifer Gordon Thomas plays Linda, his wife, a teacher who is tired of pretending to take her husband's "dignified" persona seriously. Arthur, a bartender played by Abe Goldfarb, suspects his wife Lila (Ronica V. Reddick) is having an affair with Drew, and he may or may not be right. Mr. Goldfarb plays the jealous (cuckold?) husband as both incredibly funny and incredibly threatening: you always sense the simmering anger and hostility bubbling just under the surface of his "nice guy" persona.

The previously mentioned Mr. Silliman was incredibly funny as various bartenders, waiters, waiting room attendants and tampon purchasers. It was a bold choice to have Mr. Silliman play the outsider roles for wacky laughs, and I'm sure some may have a problem with it, but it definitely worked for me. (After all, don't those pesky outsiders and passersby always seem so clownish and freakish when they intrude upon your private conversations?)

Infidelity can be - and is - a more nebulous thing than we'd like to believe. Consider this exchange between Drew (Linda's husband) and Lila (Arthur's wife):

LILA: Would you be interested in taking tango lessons with me? (Pause.)

DREW: There's nobody I'd rather take tango lessons with than you.

LILA: Then it's a date.

DREW: Wear the green dress.

Even if Drew and Lila didn't sleep together, is it actually faithful to suggest taking tango lessons together? There's playful flirting and there's...well, this. There's no doubt that this type of flirting crosses a line.

But then again...Drew does point out to Arthur that, if things are going on between him and Lila, why would he make a point to introduce her to his wife? The answer is twofold: a.) To throw his wife off the scent, and b.) Have her implicitly give him permission to spend some quality time with this new woman. Or maybe it's threefold: c.) To keep up appearances that Nothing Is Wrong.

In Public is a stellar example of how to put subtext in a play (or rather, base a play on subtext). The audience's job is to interpret not just what's being said, but how it's being said, and what it means when the character’s facial expressions don't line up exactly with their words.

Again, I was reminded of having to read my engaged friend's face every time he returned from visiting his new "friend."

It's playing for three more nights. Definitely check it out if you have the chance. Buy tickets here.

Showing his privates,

James "Public Menace" Comtois

Ps. I should also mention that the show flies. At an hour and fifteen minutes, the play feels roughly like ten minutes long, which is a testament to how captivating and compelling it is.

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