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Declarations of sexual orientation are rarely as crowd-pleasing as the one devised by Actors’ Theatre of Washington for its unofficial coming-out party at the 1409 Playbill Cafe. The troupe, which has been producing varied and intriguing fare since 1992, acquired new management over the summer and is beginning its out-of-the-closet existence as the area’s only “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender theatre company” with a corker of a romantic comedy called After Dark.
The story of two 30-something guppies who meet cute and cruise cuter in a Los Angeles diner a few nights before Christmas, the play is almost completely without heft, but it’s undeniably funny from the moment Craig pops by with some tiramisu-flavored condoms in his pocket and bumps into Ryan.
The two seem worlds apart at first. Ryan (Jeffrey Johnson) is a buttoned-down lawyer who reveres Ethel Merman, knows all the lyrics to Call Me Madam, and mostly wants to be left alone. Craig (Louis Cupp) is more outgoing, a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy when he’s out of his workday costume as a Disney dwarf”I’m Bashful,” he says; “Coulda fooled me,” replies Ryanand a major sports nut.
If you subscribe to the “opposites attract” theory of romance, they’re clearly made for each other, but on first meeting, they’re just opposites in opposition. Author Steve Kluger gives them one-liners of the “I got fired from Disneyland for blowing Dopey” variety and keeps things buoyant and upbeat for all of the first act and a goodly portion of the second. He can’t finesse questions of HIV status quite so blithelyand probably shouldn’t even bring them upbut by the time he does, the audience has laughed enough to be willing to cut him a little slack.
That’s partly because of the attractive acting by two quick-witted, well-matched performers who make the play’s take on dating rituals funny enough to appeal to crowds of nearly any persuasion. As Ryan, Johnson suggests that bitchy reticence can be a point of style, snapping comebacks with a self-protective but somehow plaintive flair, and Cupp (who looks startlingly like singer Chris Isaak in profile) makes Craig his ideal foil, un-self-consciously sexy and almost annoyingly relaxed even when matching Ryan quip for quip.
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Director Charlie Boyington maintains a brisk pace throughout, giving the evening a professional enough gloss that you have to say the show has serious commercial potential if it can ever be pried out of its intimate, 46-seat home in the back room of the 1409 Playbill Cafe, an actors’ hangout that actively encourages patrons to take drinks back to their seats. Not that the laughter needs much lubrication.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair” murmur three bouffanted witches at the Folger Shakespeare Library as they hold ballots up to the light. Joe Banno’s production takes us to Scotland, La., during an election campaign, not Scotland during a war, and for a few moments, the possibilities of a Deep South Macbeth shimmer provocatively.
They brighten to a sparkle when Lady Macbeth shows up in pearls and a bare-shouldered cocktail dress to play hostess at a political dinner for the man who stands between her husband and higher office. Lucy Newman-Williams plays Shakespeare’s murderous madam as the steeliest of magnolias, flashing a smile chilly enough to freeze a bayou and blowing a kiss to her guest of honor as she plots his assassination.
Banno (the Washington City Paper’s opera critic) wrote in an opening-night note to reviewers that his motivation for placing Shakespeare’s tale of raw ambition in the land of Huey Long and David Duke was to comment on the 2000 presidential election’s “party machinery, good-old-boy networking…media spin, and public hysterics,” but his staging works best when it’s concentrating on more personal elements of the story. The black maid (Kamilah F. Forbes) who seems alarmed to find blood in the party punch bowl but practices voodoo in private and the sweet-talking Southern minister who turns out to be Macbeth’s principled buddy Banquo (Michael Russotto) are smart modern transpositions of the Bard’s characters. And the habit Macbeth (Michael Tolaydo) has of flipping a quarter to Banquo’s impressionable young son (Wyatt Fenner) strikes just the right note as the sort of affection-buying that would appeal to a politico who isn’t a born glad-hander and baby-kisser. Tolaydo projects such an air of haplessness that you just know he’d never make it past a primary without a lot of pushing from his power-hungry wife.
But in a larger sense, the production concept leads to a stakes-diminishing politeness, even before the Suthuhn aksayents start getting on your nerves. Bloodthirsty warriors become smarmy politicians, war councils become strategy sessions, and a lot of the natural violence that powers the Bard’s story gets either submerged or left entirely on the sidelines. A movie using the same conceit might be able to goose up the film-noir intensity a bit by showing shadowy figures dumping bodies into swamps late at night, but Banno’s pretty much restricted to having characters kill people the way a political operative would want them killed: quietly. A baseball bat to the head behind a sofa, a garroting on a dark country road. Not much grandness to the guignol that way, alasnotwithstanding some effectively ominous guitar-twanging courtesy of sound designer Scott Burgess.
With an assist from Dan Covey’s mostly bilious lighting, designer Tony Cisek’s tall French doors and cocktail-party furniture stand in reasonably effectively for everything from the halls of power to the homes of the party faithful. Brenda Plakan’s hot-weather suits in beiges and tans also contribute to keeping the central staging concept alive, no matter how incongruous the chatter about what’s good for Scotland sounds as it wafts on bayou breezes in the evening’s later stages. CP