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Theatre in Review: Five Times in One Night (Youngblood EST/Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Dylan Dawson, Darcy Fowler. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

You don't need me to tell you that dating is hell, but you certainly may need Chiara Atik to explain how amusing that hell can be. In Five Times in One Night, Atik explores what happens when boy meets girl down through the ages -- beginning with Adam and Eve and ending up just this side of the end of the world. This brief collection of five comic sketches is a fine calling card for a writer to watch; it also showcases the considerable skills of its two-person cast, Dylan Dawson and Darcy Fowler.

The show starts off on a creepy/funny note with Mel and Djuna, who, in the post-apocalyptic world of 2119, are the last man and woman on the planet. Djuna, being a man, thinks maybe it's time for them to get together, but he is no Neanderthal: Using the kind of politically correct discourse currently being disseminated on college campuses to ensure both parties have consented to sex ("Obviously, this is a safe space"), they negotiate the terms of their first big date. "I just wanted to check in re that," he says, tentatively adding, "Thoughts?" Mel is, at best, ambivalent, remarking that she is "concentrated on survival," and, drawing the words for maximum effect, "Okay, I do not feel sexually attracted to you...at this time." Atik charts their halting progress with a devastating ear for the clichés of modern sexual dialogue.

On the other end of the historical spectrum, Dawson and Fowler are Adam and Eve, gradually discovering what various body parts are for and how to use them. This is the least promising material -- what humorist hasn't written his or her Edenic spoof? -- but what might have become an exercise in sniggering double entendres plays out in frank and funny fashion. Arguably the biggest laugh-getter is a contemporary sketch, featuring Dawson and Fowler, as a couple together for five years, taking part in that most dangerous of exercises, the post-coital sexual analysis. When he tries to press her for (a) an expression of satisfaction and (b) another round of sex, her answer -- "Babe, we have two more episodes of The Wire! We could be done tonight!" -- couldn't be more wilting. This cues her admission that she fantasizes about rough sex, followed by his attempt at playing the brute, which isn't all that successful. "It's just that you're not always...that convincing," she comments, a true critic of bedroom role-playing.

The most serious sketch is also the most distinctive. Fowler drops in on Dawson for what appears to be a drink and a chat, and only after a few minutes do we realize that just recently have they broken up. She is pregnant and is staying the night preparatory to a visit to the abortion clinic the next day. She wants sex, with strings, an offer that he finds deeply disconcerting, especially since she clearly has no use for his solicitous manner. Gradually, working through a forest of evasions, we arrive at the truth. "I don't want to have kids, but I want to have them with you. And you desperately want to have kids, but you don't want to have them with me." Without overburdening us with details, Atik sketches in this romantic impasse with painful clarity.

My favorite sketch puts those famous scholars and amorists Abelard and Heloise in a kind of medieval version of Love Letters, with results that are worthy of Nichols and May: Writing to Heloise, Abelard praises one of her papers, cheerfully noting, "I've never seen a woman write so...competently!" We get plenty of philosophical shop talk; Abelard writes, "Just a quick note to say I looked up that passage when I got home, and you were right: it's Euthydemus, not Protagoras. I owe you a pheasant." Later, he broaches the idea of moving in and tutoring her: "I would offer to come to your house every week but I just can't deal with that three-day commute time." Once ensconced in her household, he is shocked by what he learns about her. "You have a chastity belt?" he asks. "Yeah, but I don't, like, wear it," she replies coyly.

Throughout, Dawson and Fowler change personas as deftly as they switch costumes. Fowler excels as the grumpy Mel, who claims her sex drive has been dulled by the near extinction of the human race; as Laura, who harbors Fifty Shades of Gray-style fantasies; and as Heloise, who has the mind of a great scholar and the manner of a giggly college sophomore. Dawson is especially amusing as Djuna, who is painfully aware of how limited his dating pool has become; as Tim, who is baffled by Laura's desire to be choked and spanked; and as Abelard, who tries to keep up a cheery demeanor even in the face of castration. The director, R. J. Tolan, deftly recalibrates the tone of each sketch as needed.

As part of EST's Youngblood division, this is a very low-budget production, with audience seating (including some couches) on three sides and a basic living room set (couches, a bar) standing in for three sketches; the most artful touch is the fence, made of greenery, which covers up the naughty bits in the Adam and Eve sketch. Audrey Nauman's costumes are remarkably detailed for each sketch, and yet are flexible enough to allow for fast changeovers. Dan Spitaliere's sound design includes a variety of pop selections, including Ingrid Michaelson's "Girls Chase Boys" and Beyoncé's "Countdown," among others. Greg MacPherson's lighting strikes a different tone for each piece.

As the name suggests, Youngblood is the arm of EST dedicated to early-career writers, and there is no question that Atik is a find. She is also lucky to have Dawson and Fowler, who are clearly on her wavelength, on hand. Doing the math, it's safe to say that Five Times in One Night introduces us to three beguiling new faces. -- David Barbour

(25 February 2015)

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