a quiet sip of COFFEE
nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
December 3, 2010
There are some things that live theatre can do better than film. The proof, if you are looking for it, is currently playing in the East Village at The Red Room. It's Horse Trade Theater Group and ANIMALPARTS' production of A Quiet Sip of COFFEE, written and performed by Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz, and directed and co-created by Anita Rochon.
The story is a deceptively simple tale of two best friends who push each other one dare too far. As a prank, David, a young gay man, and Jack, his heterosexual best friend, contact an anti-gay church, one that promises it can heal Same Sex Attraction, to ask for funding for a new play they are working on. To their surprise, the church is interested, and the boys must decide to either call off the prank or keep it going. But the further they push the joke, the deeper they sink into the lie, and soon, to keep up their story, they find themselves enrolled in the church's two week intensive program to address their "gender confusion."
The well-constructed play starts off fast-paced and intriguing, with intro music by bands like Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse that the audience can rock out to, but also serves to firmly set the play in the time frame of the mid-aughts. The two actors know how to use their stage time, and manage to be charming despite wearing eerie white face make-up. Playing off each other with natural comic precision, they often address the audience directly, and Johnston, playing David, is especially adept at using a well-timed look to communicate to the audience, subtly balancing out the more physically charged performance of Schwartz. The first few scenes have a deliberately self-aware quality, as if everyone in the theatre is invited in on the joke. But soon the masks come off, literally and figuratively, and the boys' jokes about being bitten by a dog are hitting a more sinister note as they pass a gas station called The Slaughtered Lamb. Blending the "boy who cried wolf" metaphor with the Wolfman legend, mask work, and projected scenes from An American Werewolf in London, the creative team gives this production teeth that sink into the dark places of the young men's psyches.
As the story evolves, so do the performances, becoming more honest as the choices become more difficult, forcing each boy to confront questions and unwelcome answers. Both actors also take on multiple characters. Johnston seamlessly transitions from David into Michael, a younger, more confused teen that David and Jack meet in the church's group therapy session, infusing the secondary character with the wide-eyed vulnerability of a lost sheep trusting the wolves. Schwartz gives a performance to be relished as Dr. Jonathan Burnett, the predatory church counselor, who is willing to use his sex appeal to manipulate the boys he claims to be helping. A strong physical performer, Schwartz plays both the attractive and repulsive qualities of the doctor with rare bravery. Director Rochon makes bold choices in her use of space in shockingly effective ways, clearly understands pacing, and uses restraint with the projections so that they add to the production rather than compete with it.
This is good story telling in a wonderfully composed production. A Quiet Sip of COFFEE uses elements of the abstract and linear together in a way that is ultimately more intimate than the closest on-screen close up, and by fully embracing the theatrical, has created an experience that is uniquely, wonderfully live.