About 10 minutes into the opening-night performance of Courting Chris, the heavens opened for what seemed the first time in months, drenching D.C. in spirit-lifting, soul-reviving rain. The downpour pounded so hard on the Church Street Theater’s roof that, for a few moments, it was hard to hear the actors as they went about the business of setting up Sam Schwartz Jr.’s computer-age mating-rituals comedy.
Before long, though, roars of laughter had replaced the roar from the roof, and Schwartz’s surprisingly winning amalgam of Cyrano de Bergerac and Will & Grace seemed nearly as spirit-lifting and soul-reviving as the deluge outside.
Its story is schematic but smart. A handsome, pleasantly obtuse man’s man, Sean (Peter Finnegan), is terminally clumsy with women (the term “renal failure” really shouldn’t come up on a first date) and is beginning to think he’ll remain single forever. Similarly, his gay childhood friend, Ben (Jason Gilbert), gets along famously with girls but gets tongue-tied the moment a guy gives him a second glance.
Ben has a poetry-loving friend named Chris (Christina Anderson) to whom Sean is attracted. Sean has a sports-loving friend named Chris (Carlos Bustamante) to whom Ben is attracted. Each agrees to help the other with the courting process, and for as long as the romancing is conducted solely through e-mail, where editing is possible, everything goes swimmingly. The point is not, however, to be pen pals. So Sean pilfers a pair of tiny two-way earphones from his security consultancy firm, and he and Ben hatch a plan to feed each other lines and stage directions when they go out on dates.
The results prove salutary at first. With Ben playing puppetmaster, Sean finds himself suavely quoting from “The Art of Courtly Love” and murmuring “Let’s just cuddle,” much to the astonishment and delight of the female Chris. With Sean pulling the strings, Ben quotes sports stats and drinks Heineken (though he almost chokes the first time his Chris asks what he wants and Sean whispers “heinie” in his ear).
It’s Cyrano squared, without balconies or tragic aftershocks, though there is one little fly in the K-Y Jelly: Neither Chris is actually getting to know the person he or she is going out with. They’re both, in essence, dating their best friends by proxy, and since those friends are the ones calling the shots, sex keeps getting short-circuited. On top of which, with all those e-mails flying, one’s bound to go awry.
Playwright Schwartz is quick with a quip, and director Jeff Keenan keeps the pacing brisk enough that the script’s permutations play out at least as crisply and brightly as those in any of Hollywood’s current romantic comedies. And because the playwright hails from Capitol Hill, there’s what you might call an inside-the-Beltway bonus for D.C. audiences. The characters rendezvous at Tryst in Adams Morgan, do volunteer work with the Sexual Minority Youth Action League, and quote the Post’s Style section. They do not, even for a moment, sound like New Yorkers—which makes them a decidedly pleasant stage anomaly.
Courting Chris is not without a glitch or two, the most central one being that Schwartz is on far firmer comic ground when he’s mining Mars/Venus stereotypes for chuckles than when he shifts into Mars/Mars territory. It’s not that the laughs dry up when the gay romance kicks in, just that they seem less character-based. It would be easy to intuit a disconnect between a flamboyant queen and a macho closet case, but that’s not really what’s being presented on stage.
The male Chris is, in fact, something of a blank slate, mostly because he arrives late, after the play’s comic rhythms are well enough established that the author can’t spend much time brushing in his motivations or likes and dislikes. It’s clear that fey-to-the-point-of-flaming Ben thinks Chris is looking for someone butch, but all Chris ever says on the subject of male appeal is that he finds Ben funny, and funny is the one thing Ben was before Sean started pulling his strings. Casting an actor as effortlessly ingratiating and natural as Bustamante solves some of Chris’ problems, but it’s asking a lot to make him build a whole character around a fondness for football trivia and the muscular verse of Ezra Pound.
Actually, all the performers are pretty much ideal. As Ben, Gilbert adopts so many Sean Hayes mannerisms that in his early scenes you half expect him to burst into a “Just Jack” routine, but as the actor shades the wisecracks with doe-eyed vulnerability, the character comes into his own. Finnegan’s backslapping Sean is funny, hearty, and just clueless enough to deflect any troublesome questions about why all this straight guy’s best buddies are gay. And Anderson makes the female Chris an appealingly sharp-tongued romantic, as eager to find a guy who doesn’t just want a roll in the hay as she is sexually frustrated when he finally comes along.
The evening is fizzy, sitcomish, and lighter than air, which may just be what folks are looking for at this time of year. The cooling effect of the rain the night I saw it had dissipated by the next morning. The cool at Church Street will be around at least through Sept. 12, longer if local audiences have any sense at all. CP