D.C. playwright Sam Schwartz Jr. knows a little something about romantic confusion, the subject of his latest work, Courting Chris. The play concerns itself with the frustrations and uncertainties of single life in the ’90s. Before Schwartz began work on Chris, a relationship of 12 years came to an end, leaving Schwartz “middle-aged and single.” He says he felt like Austin Powers—a historical relic, uninitiated in the rituals of the modern dating scene. But, like many artists, Schwartz dealt with his grief through his craft. “I used the play to deal with my anxiety, to make sense of things,” he says.
Courting Chris, a comedy, tells the story of two friends, Sean (Peter Finnegan) and Ben (Jason Gilbert). Both recognize that animal attraction can be a barrier to honesty and intimacy. As Schwartz says, “When sex gets in the way, people go crazy. You can’t be yourself.” When Sean and Ben fall for each other’s friend, they ably demonstrate Schwartz’s thesis. Sean is so profoundly smitten with Ben’s friend Chris (Christina Anderson) that he nervously falls back on stale pickup lines. Ben finds Sean’s friend Chris (Carlos Bustamante) so dreamy that he loses the ability to communicate clearly. Both men need help—which they get, from each other, in an Information Age update of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
Schwartz has been writing plays for almost 20 years, but, he says, Chris is his first pure comedy, “with no pretense of a serious side.” It also departs from his earlier work by not dealing primarily with gay themes. Instead, Schwartz explores the commonalities between gay and straight life. Neither group fares well at the dating game. “Dating and love are the great equalizers,” he says. “Both groups are clueless.”
Though Chris initially emerged from the trauma of Schwartz’s return to the dating world, the play has gradually developed over the past year. Jeff Keenan directed an early version at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in April. The final version, directed by Keenan, opened Aug. 19 at the Church Street Theater.
Word-of-mouth has been strong enough that Chris regularly plays to a sold-out house. Buzz has even been generated about the play’s beginning a run in another city—or being made into a movie. But Schwartz is mum: “You never know what’s going to happen. I’m trying to protect myself emotionally,” he says. “If something happens, that’s wonderful. I’m trying to keep myself focused on what I’ll do next.”
And, in case you’re wondering, Schwartz has achieved romantic success, too: His current love interest loves Courting Chris. —Neal Carruth
Courting Chris has been extended at Church Street Theater to Oct. 3.