Thursday, June 9, 2011

Those Hedonistic "Edenites": Stuart Bousel's New Play at the Exit Theatre

There's a stereotype that most plays by young (and even not-so-young) writers will be autobiographical in nature, attempts to transform their own life experiences into theater and maybe get revenge on a few ex-lovers while they're at it. But, in my experience, that hasn't really been the case. My playwright friends are writing about the Greek financial crisis or zombies invading small-town Texas -- not about everyday life in San Francisco at the beginning of the 2010s. And I can't remember the last time I saw a play that made no bones about being autobiographical. Thus, there is something oddly refreshing about my friend Stuart Bousel's Edenites: A Play About San Francisco, described in its self-mocking press release as "a stylish piece of theatrical fluff, pretty much an exercise in drama as therapy, in which actual experiences are being thrown up on stage by the writer in a flagrant attempt to make sense of his own life." Edenites is honest about the way we live now (e.g. it admits that many 30-somethings still live with roommates), without trying too hard to be trendy or hip (no name-dropping and just the right amount of San Francisco in-jokes). You may find that the play invites you to make sense of your own life too.

Edenites is an ensemble comedy-drama about a group of people in their mid-30s, centered around Hugo (Kai Morrison), a San Francisco gay man in an open relationship. Normally, Hugo is content to live off his trust fund, date the pop-culture buff Xavier (Brian Martin) and have flings with other men, such as the seductive Aurillio (John Caldon). But during the week Edenites takes place, two things happen to shake Hugo out of his aimlessness and complacency. First, his old friend Chester (Ryan Hebert) comes from Tucson for a visit. Then, for the first time, Hugo sleeps with a woman -- the outspoken bisexual Lisa (Kristin Broadbear).

Hugo's other friends aren't much more successful at personal relationships. Chester is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend Imogen (Xanadu Bruggers), a successful novelist who happens to be in San Francisco on a book tour. The married couple Trent and Jenny (Ben Kruer and Megan Briggs) are stressed out with a new baby in the house. Rounding out the cast are Kira Shaw as Hugo's hipster roommate and Chris Struett as a queeny bookstore owner.

I mention all of the actors by name because one of the strengths of Edenites is its cast, largely made up of what we might call the Stuart Bousel Stock Company. (Three of the actors were in Stuart's recent production of M. Butterfly at Custom Made, and others of them have also been in Bouselian projects.) I was struck by how well they all lived in their characters' skins, not only acting as they spoke their own lines, but reacting to their fellow performers and Stuart's funny and bittersweet scenarios. Perhaps it helps that some of the actors, notably Brian Martin, are modeling their characters after real people whom we and Stuart know.

And a strong cast is key to the success of Edenites, because the play is all about exploring the depths of its characters -- showing how they surprise one another and even surprise themselves. Imogen may be successful and stylish (as played by the redheaded Bruggers in white blouse and pencil skirt, she looks like a 21st-century Joan Holloway), but her story proves that "it's a comfort to know that even famous people don't have their shit together" -- one of the lines that really resonated with me. Lisa may at first seem like a spoiled, sex-crazed barfly, but she earns a round of applause when she stands up for herself, chews out an old friend, and triumphantly proclaims "I am a flower!" Jenny chafes under the role of "new mom" and becomes neurotic, angry, and self-loathing; I love these kinds of female characters and Briggs gives an excellent portrayal.

All right, I probably related to the women's stories more than I did to the theme of gay men in open relationships, which forms another major part of Edenites. But this has to do more with my own experiences and expectations, than with Stuart's writing or direction. Speaking of direction, I love how he re-configured the Exit Stage Left into a theater-in-the-round format.

The relationships and situations in Edenites are universal enough that it could probably be re-written to take place in Seattle or Chicago or other liberal/ gay-friendly U.S. cities. Still, it doesn't lie when it bills itself as "A Play About San Francisco." It captures the way that, in this city, you will never stop running into people from your past. It captures our hedonism, our snootiness, our greed -- the defense mechanisms we use to hide our sentimentality, which is what really defines us. In Edenites, there's a leitmotif of characters moving to New York, a sense that New York is where all the really ambitious and predatory people go, leaving the San Franciscans frolicking in the Garden of Eden. I'm reminded of the eternal wisdom of "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen": "Live in New York once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in California once, but leave before it makes you soft." Over the course of the play, Hugo learns that he's far less jaded, and far more easily hurt, than he thought he was. I talked to Stuart about this theme afterwards. "Yes, exactly," he said. "The characters all think they're so tough -- but we can see that they're bleeding all over the stage."

Edenites plays at the Exit Stage Left through June 25.

Disclosure (if it weren't obvious): Stuart is clearly a friend of mine, and he comped me my ticket to Edenites.

Image: Edenites poster designed by Cody Rishell.


Dr.J said...

Hi! Any comments about the Tony Awards?

Marissa said...

Hi Dr. J, I didn't really pay much attention to the Tony Awards this year. As a teenager I used to be obsessed with the Tonys, but now I realize that the most interesting American theater is NOT usually found on Broadway and the kind of things that get featured on the Tonys broadcast are not the things I love most about theater. Plus, since I'm on the West Coast, I'm not really qualified to issue opinions on theater I haven't seen. I congratulate the winners, but I'm really not that interested in seeing most of their shows!