Top and Bottom
nytheatre.com review by Ryan Emmons
August 15, 2007
As I sat in the dimly lit theatre on the long red cushy couch that made up the front row, I could not help but notice the lyrics to one of the pre-show songs: "Come on baby / make it hurt so good." I knew right then, as I looked at the sparse and seedy motel set designed by David Clark Smith (who also plays the part of Tommy), that I was in for a very different theatrical experience.
The play begins with a character named James, played by Mark Gaddis, standing on stage wearing tight leather pants, spiky leather suspenders, and a leather mask. The young and unassuming Tommy knocks on the door and enters into a very awkward and humorous situation. Tommy has answered James's personal ad online for a submissive "bottom" but it becomes clear early on that whereas Tommy has had several S&M exploits, this is James's first. From here the play gets a bit knotty. Despite James's inexperience, his skills with a rope are commendable; James's knots are as fascinating as Tommy's sexual anecdotes. The play brings us further and further into the world of S&M with the use of role play to provide hilarious and silly scenarios, from a boy being yelled at for overdue library fines to a young man and his kitten who need to be saved by a strapping fireman. As this seemingly bizarre and unfamiliar world of S&M is explored, something surprising happens: a level of normalcy is achieved.
Playwright/director Kevin Michael West subtly and skillfully acclimates the audience to this place where the leather straps and ropes no longer seem strange; as Tommy says, "sometimes people need to get out their aggressive side." Although there is nudity and bondage and S&M themes, this play is much more than the sensational title Top and Bottom suggests. It becomes clear that these are just two men trying to be who they are and accept their desires and needs. The two characters end up sharing with each other their first realizations that S&M was for them and telling truly touching and painful stories about what it has been like.
It should be noted that the performances by Smith and Gaddis are both sensitive and outrageous. Smith creates a character who is constantly thinking and engaged; it is hard to take your eyes off his understated choices and casual personality. The play explores the personal struggles of these two men in such an intimate and emotional manner that it ends mostly on a note of understanding. The comedy of the beginning of the show is almost forgotten (and it would perhaps be helpful to the construction of the play as well as the audience if it came back to its comic roots at the end).
The brilliance of the production is that when it begins, it is easy to think that S&M is just a fancy or a game that perhaps these people will outgrow. By the end of the production however, those judgments are at least reexamined. This to me is the sign of good theatre: a story that makes you reevaluate previous conceptions about the world. Albeit this is a most unexpected place to come to such revelations, the message is clear. Tommy explains that whatever people's sexual desires are, whether they enjoy the occasional secret rendezvous in an elevator shaft at the office or being tied naked to trees in the woods, these are people who are following their dreams. Tommy describes them as gay, kinky Martin Luther King, Jr.'s who deserve respect because at least they have figured out what they want and who they are, and most importantly how to love themselves for it.