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A play about the inner workings of theatre can be a tough sell, but Charter Theatre pulls it off with charm and wit to spare in its production of the new work What Dogs Do by local playwright and actor Chris Stezin.
The premise is that a straight writer, Daryl (Christopher Lane), is the best friend of a gay computer geek, Martin (Stezin). Having found no great success with his work, Daryl tries his hand at a gay-themed play (think of something along the lines of Love! Valor! Compassion! and you’ll get the picture) because he recognizes its commercial potential and knows that emotions and relationships are the same at their core, regardless of sexual orientation.
What Daryl comes up with is, he feels, crap. And he’s sure that if he, a straight writer, pitches the play to theatre companies, they will laugh in his face. But in a moment of cynicism, he suggests to the culturally low-brow Martin that if a gay writer had penned the very same play, that would be a different story. It would surely be praised as touching and insightful, instead of such labels as “cloying” and “manipulative” that a straight writer would encounter.
To prove his point, Daryl talks Martin into putting his name on the play and presenting it to Daryl’s girlfriend Stephanie (Rachel Gardner), who is, conveniently, a director desperate for scripts for a reading series at the theatre where she works. Lo and behold, the play is beloved, and before Daryl can say, “I told you so,” it’s in the hands of New York producers who turn it into an off-Broadway hit.
Stezin’s script escalates the comedic confusion briskly, and director Keith Bridges adeptly matches the pace in his tight control of a talented and consistently enjoyable cast, also featuring Ray Ficca as Martin’s annoying boyfriend, Robert, and Dennis Dulmage as Daryl’s homophobic father, Mr. Sanders. Needless to say, Daryl and Martin’s charade can’t go on forever, and when it finally comes crashing down, it’s a grand mess with far-reaching implications Daryl and Martin never saw coming.
Beyond its satirical view of contemporary theatre, What Dogs Do also takes a close and moving look at the intricacies of Daryl and Martin’s friendship, which began in childhood and was threatened by Daryl’s bad reaction to Martin’s coming out in college. Now, as thirty-something professionals, they’ve restored closeness, but not without a constant tinge of leftover pain and certain sense of discomfort Daryl will always feel about Martin’s sexuality, no matter how accepting and supportive Daryl may be.
It adds a universality to What Dogs Do that any gay person can relate to if they’ve ever struggled with staying close to longtime straight friends. And the comedy of the theatrical satire is sharp and accessible enough to make What Dogs Do highly recommendable to audiences of every stripe.
Through January 26 at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, 1556 Wisconsin Avenue NW. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. Call 202-333-7009. Visit www.chartertheatre.org.
Project Y Theatre Company’s production of Sinking Up combines vignettes, live instrumental music and improvisational movement — all connected by a thematic focus on male relationships. Actor-dancers Sam Elmore and Peter Schmitz prove to be engaging, powerful presences throughout the show, even when much of the multidisciplinary material strays into obtuse territory that leaves its actual statements on male-ness a trifle hard to discern.
Homosexuality drives several key sequences, most notably Paul Donnelly’s short play Spittin’ Image, in which a son contacts his long-absent gay father in an attempt to get him to attend his upcoming wedding. The follow-up dance piece “Sex” is about just that, as Elmore and Schmitz delve thoughtfully into the euphoria and remorse of lust-driven liaisons.
The two performers achieve the most strikingly beautiful physicality in the closing movement piece “Duet,” which boldly combines eroticism with the sheer intensity of shared masculinity that transcends simple definitions of sexual orientation. It’s the culmination of a challenging and intriguing presentation that demands much of the actors and audience alike, but ultimately rewards with imagery and ideas that stick with you long after you leave the theatre.
Through February 1 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE. Tickets are $15 to $18. Call 703-326-4355. Visit www.projectydc.org.
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