Perhaps just 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, but 100 percent of two-character plays about relationships end unhappily. That’s the conclusion one might reach after seeing The Personal(s) at No Rules Theatre and Skin Tight and 2-2 Tango, two plays Studio 2ndStage has coupled in its latest “Pas de Deux” pairing. Lest it appear that the three D.C. directors responsible are coping with breakups, it should be said that only one of the shows is a total downer. The other two at least offer catharsis and comic relief.
The Personal(s) is a world premiere adapted by No Rules Theatre Company’s producing director, Brian Sutow, who developed the script from two movies called Blind Date. One was a 1996 Dutch film, by the late Theo van Gogh; the other was the 2008 American knock-off, starring Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. Say this much about the theatrical adaptation: It’s an excuse to create a totally awesome set.
No Rules is now a resident at Signature Theatre, using the smaller Ark space when the landlord isn’t. For The Personal(s), the room has been transformed into a speakeasy and magic venue, complete with a jukebox and framed vintage posters of Houdini, Thurston the Magician, and Herrmann the Great. The bar itself is a handsome Art Deco behemoth. When the run is over, someone should buy all the décor and open a new bar on H Street NE. Hopefully it will attract a less troubled crowd than it does onstage.
The play opens as Don (Michael Kramer), the magician/proprietor, is forcing his young barkeep Henry (Spencer Trinwith) to help him rehearse card tricks. His search for an ace is interrupted by the arrival of a blind date, a woman named Janna who has responded to his personal ad.
Like curious skeptics watching an illusionist, viewers must piece together Don and Janna’s backstory. This is not a blind date but an estranged couple communicating through personal ads. Or is it? The script includes what we take at first to be humorous role-playing. At one point Janna (Anne Kanengeiser) shows up as a shrink ready to analyze Don, while later he’s a trench coat-clad reporter taking notes. These are fronts. Something split these two apart 12 years ago, and they haven’t been able to so much as kiss ever since.
Many plays challenge viewers to think about difficult subjects, most of which can be elucidated onstage. But sexual dysfunction tied to tragedy? Yikes, that’s tricky. It’s been done, notably in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, but those characters go to therapy. Instead of asking viewers to explore a dark place, The Personal(s) just gets creepily awkward, as though Don and Janna desperately need an intervention. Henry could provide one, or at least be a sane, neutral observer. Instead, Trinwith’s character is a likeable third wheel/prop guy who clears the tables. As the 90-minute show progresses, Kanengeiser and Kramer face the thankless jobs of depicting heightened anguish, rage, and sexual aggression. None is easy to project, especially in an intimate black-box space. The only way these final scenes would be bearable is if they were shot from behind a camera, by a director with 20 takes to choose from.