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Theatre in Review: [Porto] (Women's Project Theatre)

Julia Sirna-Fest, Leah Karpel, and Jorge Cordova. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Whenever Kate Benson, who wrote [Porto], stops talking, her play threatens to be a funny and touching romantic comedy tinged with the anxieties of early middle age. Too much of the time, however, we are forced to cope with the playwright's voice -- insistent, intrusive, and intent on stealing focus from the characters she has created. Benson, who remains offstage until the curtain call, acts as narrator, interpreting her characters' choices, giving them the odd stern talking-to, and going off on tangents about industrial food production -- for example, discussing in grisly detail the inhumane treatment of geese whose livers are marked for transformation into foie gras. The result is death by extreme editorializing.

Benson, who had a success using a not-dissimilar technique in the comedy A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, occasionally scores here. She describes the watering hole where much of the play unfolds as a "boushy bar," adding, "'Boushy' is a word I made up. It means bourgeois and also douchey. Slang from French." The title character, a slightly plump young woman in her late thirties, stands outside the bar, trying to decide whether to stop in for a drink and a bite. Benson, in her God voice, runs on about the perils of eating meat, wheat, dairy, sugar, and salt, not to mention coffee and liquor, while offering a withering critique of Porto's figure. Julia Sirna-Frest, who plays Porto, responds wittily to this abuse with a series of increasingly alarmed facial expressions. It's a sharply amusing sketch depicting the hundred and one qualms we often experience just before taking part in mildly indulgent behavior.

About that name: This is a good time to mention that she and the other regulars in the bar, Dry Sac and Hennepin, are named after drink orders. Confusingly, Porto drinks red wine and Dry Sac prefers vodka tonics, leading one to wonder if their monikers aren't left over from an earlier draft. The other characters are Doug the Bartender and Raphael the Waiter. When Porto enters the place, she says "Hey, Doug the Bartender." When served her food order, she says, "Thanks, Raphael the Waiter." Cutesy self-conscious theatrical devices? Benson has a million of them.

Then again, from time to time, when Benson abandons her omniscient opining, letting her characters speak for themselves, [Porto] -- Don't ask me what the brackets mean -- has an authentic charm. Occupying adjacent barstools, Porto and Hennepin fall into a discussion of books that quickly turns romantic. The sight of these two unconventionally attractive characters -- both of them a little older and lonelier than they ever intended to be -- falling for each other cuts through the play's thick layer of snark, giving us, at long last, a reason to care about what is happening onstage. Even better is the scene set on the morning after, when Porto, experiencing second thoughts about so quickly going to bed with Hennepin, is horrified to find that her kitchen has been invaded by Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir, ready to crush her hopes with oppressive theories of commodification and objectification. De Beauvoir, shooing away any idle notions of romance, announces, "She cannot see sex as an adventure for herself, divorced from its role in cohesive traditional patriarchal relationships." Porto, who hasn't even had her coffee yet, plants her face firmly in her palm.

But for a good two-thirds of the eighty-five-minute running time, the characters are held hostage to their author, who gasses on, describing "sunlight the color of a dying empire" and offering appetite-killing depictions of hog slaughter on big-agriculture farms, when cataloging the loss of life options that come with age. Such pleasures as are on offer involve the fine performances under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans. Sirna-Frest comes close to holding the entire evening together through the sheer force of her personality, and she has a first-rate partner in Jorge Cordova's Hennepin, who matches her, nuance for nuance. Leah Karpel shows a real knack for pratfalls as Dry Sac, the bar's drunken drama queen. Noel Joseph Allain is dryly amusing throughout as Doug the Bartender, humiliating his customers into choosing the fattiest meals and most rarified vintages before blithely announcing that he is a vegetarian and on the wagon; as Raphael the Waiter, Ugo Chukwu makes the most of a speech about his love of serious, intellectual females -- among other things, he finds knowledge of ancient Greek to be a positive aphrodisiac. Allain and Chukwu also amuse as the disputatious Steinem and de Beauvoir, expounding at length on the illusory qualities of romance.

At first, Kristen Robinson's bar set looks a little underrealized -- although Amith Chandrashaker's lighting lends it just the right dimly romantic atmosphere -- but then one realizes that it cunningly contains an additional set, depicting Porto's kitchen; altogether, it's an effective piece of work. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes feel exactly right for each character. Kate Marvin's sound design ensures that Benson's voice is a constant (and penetrating) presence; she also provides a number of sound effects, include lapping waves of lake water and an unexplained rumble that accompanies a solar eclipse.

The biggest problem with [Porto] -- which is being presented by Women's Project in association with The Bushwick Starr and New Georges -- is that, shorn of all its tricks and traps, its observations -- about gentrification, urban fads, relationships, getting older -- aren't terribly original, and the author's gloomy, unamusing voice casts clouds of anhedonia over the action. As demonstrated here and in her earlier work, Benson is a whiz at inventing new ways of communicating, but you have to have something to say. Yes, our neighborhoods are gentrifying, bookstores are closing, the country is in decline, and we're all getting older. What else have you got? -- David Barbour

(7 February 2018)

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