In this early work by Shinn (first produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre, when the playwright was just 23), two couples take parallel tracks toward sexual connection on Independence Day, 1996, in Shinn’s hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. June (Michael Kurowski), a 16-year-old boy wrestling with his attraction to men, meets up with Joe (Robert Howard), a middle-aged man he met on an Internet message board. Joe’s teenage daughter, Abigayle (Paige Collins), who’s looking after her bedridden mother while she believes her father is at a conference in Boston, allows herself to be lured out of the house by Dexter (Danny Martinez), a charming former high-school basketball star turned weed dealer.
Both pairs drive aimlessly around the city in alternating two-character scenes, trying to drown out the frustration and awkwardness of their desire with endless, possibly bullshit stories (see Dexter’s shaggy-dog tale of his first trip to McDonald’s) or probing interrogation: Joe’s aggressive chattiness with June can seem more like an interview than a conversation.
Shinn displays much of the same fascination with the interplay of sexual desire and psychological identity as can be seen in later works like Dying City or Teddy Ferrara, and Nate Silver’s measured, handsomely staged production for Jackalope Theatre Company carefully captures the ambiguities of such fraught encounters, the equal mix of elation and uncertainty.
Silver’s staging drags a bit in places, which is tough for a 100-minute show. And there are slight elisions in Shinn’s plotting. You might wonder how, for instance, the proper, SAT-obsessed Abigayle ever became friends with Dexter, whose urban patois she mocks as an affectation, or why June doesn’t push back when Joe, who’s closeted and married, nags him to come out to his parents.
Yet these hints of messiness come across as purely human in this cast’s satisfying portrayals. Newcomer Kurowski, a Columbia College junior, is particularly impressive in his nuanced portrait of a nervous kid doing his best to project confidence. But as the title suggests, all four of these actors offer winning work.
Jackalope Theatre Company at Broadway Armory Park. By Christopher Shinn. Directed by Nate Silver. With Paige Collins, Robert Howard, Michael Kurowski, Danny Martinez. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.