Partners

1/4
Photograph: Emily Schwartz
Brian Crawford, Will Von Vogt, Blake Russell and Lauren Pizzi in Partners at LiveWire Chicago Theatre
2/4
Photograph: Emily Schwartz
Will Von Vogt, Blake Russell, Lauren Pizzi and Brian Crawford in Partners at LiveWire Chicago Theatre
3/4
Photograph: Emily Schwartz
Blake Russell and Will Von Vogt in Partners at LiveWire Chicago Theatre
4/4
Photograph: Emily Schwartz
Will Von Vogt and Lauren Pizzi in Partners at LiveWire Chicago Theatre

LiveWire Chicago Theatre at the Den Theatre. By Dorothy Fortenberry. Directed by Kendra Miller. With Will Von Vogt, Lauren Pizzi, Blake Russell, Brian Crawford. Running time: 1hr 30mins; one intermission.

Theater review by Dan Jakes

Behind every great woman is a guiding gay man and vice versa, at least according to countless stage and screen depictions, be they romcom-stereotypical or otherwise. Dorothy Fortenberry's more considerate comedy, which had a reading at LiveWire before premiering at the 2014 Humana Festival, aims to look past the levity and ask more meaningful questions about friendship and how much we owe to those we care about.

At least that's how it's billed in the press release. The bigger question, and easily the most winning element of Fortenberry's play, is in the subtext: What does a relationship look like when sex and competition are non-factors? What are the duties and benefits of that unique and special kind of friendship? For all the time lovers spend in fiction running after and away from one another, it's fascinating to get a more serious story about the gay-man–straight-woman dynamic that's seen as often in real-life as it is at a reductionist level in stories.

It's intriguing stuff in the big picture. As polished as Kendra Miller's staging and competent cast of four are, the devil is in the details of Fortenberry's sometimes head-scratching script.

Clare (Lauren Pizzi) is a moderately successful food photographer, or at least a food dresser for a food photographer—a distinction that's supposed to weigh on her shoulders as it would only in the upper middle-class Brooklyn social circles where being "not that well off" includes being able to cook gourmet foams on a regular basis. Her best friend, Ezra (Will Von Vogt), is a part-time temp and full-time boyfriend of Brady (Blake Russell), the breadwinner and anchor in their relationship.

Despite having no real business experience, Ezra has by-proxy dreams of riding Clare's culinary hobby to his CEO vision, pushing her to escape her dead-end (though hip and apparently profitable) day job to a buy a food truck, which he'd manage and schedule meetings around. Clare, on the other hand, is more fixated on Ezra living out marital bliss with Brady, and pushes him to tie the knot so she can vicariously ignore more fundamental problems she shares with her husband, Paul (Brian Crawford).

During dinner parties and intimate one-on-one talks, the play volleys back and forth between reiterations of that premise and already-dated Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain jokes. There's also a monologue comparing masturbation to popping zits, because Clare has a self-inflicted skin condition that's exacerbated by anxiety. The visual metaphor is more gross than engrossing, and seems ultimately needless.

No one on stage can be faulted for not trying to build a believable relationship—in fact, the solid performances almost do more to highlight how unnatural and absurd some of the statements and decisions Fortenberry's characters make are. After a letter containing hundreds of thousands of dollars for Clare arrives courtesy of Deus Ex Machina Mail Service, Act I ends on such a bizarre and silly twist that it steamrolls the credibility Miller's built so diligently up until that point. Even worse is the revealed reason Clare is truly passionate about gay marriage (spoiler alert: it involves survivor's guilt and eye rolls).

In the end, we get a better understanding of a unique friendship, but when everyone turns out to be as unlikable as they are, these dinner parties seem better skipped altogether.

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