It’s not very often that I leave a theater emotionally raw. But the 90-minute one act, Straight—currently running at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre (410 West 42nd Street, NYC, 10036)—is a charged piece that showcases why labels still matter, even in 2016.
Set in contemporary Boston, the play occurs in a similar universe as today’s: same-sex marriage is legal, so why is sexuality still an issue? Ben (Jake Epstein)—who finds himself crushing on Chris (Thomas Sullivan) even though he's with Emily (Jenna Gavigan)—realizes that if he acknowledges he is gay then he’ll quickly be labeled Gay Ben. “For a gay person, why is telling people your sexuality such a necessary part of that? And, if you don't, it's seen as being in the closet, and you are weak and afraid,” says Epstein. “A straight person doesn't have to do that.”
Alongside playwright Drew Fornarola, Scott Elmegreen conceived and wrote Straight as a modern problem play. “The issues surrounding sexuality have changed so rapidly over the last 10 years, it has been sort of impossible to not talk about it—to not write about it,” says Elmegreen. Together, the duo crafted a realistic drama that is acutely focused on characters. “It's about a few characters dealing with a contemporary social issue in a very personal way. Particularly, we felt that what Ben is going through with Emily and Chris was something that people of all sexualities could relate to.”
Straight serves as a powerful discourse on labels, and not just because some marketing genius slapped the hashtag #LivingALabel on their social media platforms. “It's certainly a central issue, and one that Scott and I spent a lot of time talking about in the development of the play,” says Fornarola. “I think it's important that we think about the implications about that phenomenon in our society and how that might be affecting people.”
At 20, Chris ascribes less power to labels. But at 26, Ben is unable to do the same, highlighting a generational shift between the two characters. Labels matter to Ben, and yet he is incensed by the injustice of labeling. “I think reasonable people can disagree on how correct Ben is on these issues,” says Elmegreen. “But it felt like a discussion worth having.”
When it comes to the ideas of sexuality and how one should or should not express it, Ben, Chris, and Emily posit contrary ideas. “I think they present three interesting takes, and I hope that their conversation sparks conversation among the audience,” says Fornarola. “This conversation has to happen because the play is about a guy who doesn't connect with 'gay culture.' He just wants to live his life,” adds Epstein. “It is so real. So human.”
Straight runs through May 8, 2016. Find more information and tickets here.