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Theatre in Review: Log Cabin (Playwrights Horizons)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Log Cabin, Jordan Harrison has the entirely laudable idea of lampooning entitled, wealthy gays and lesbians who, in the second half of the Obama Administration, are so caught up in the tiny dramas associated with their privilege that any empathy for others has thoroughly dried up. But satire, if it is going to work, requires at the minimum a bit of compassion or, failing that, a certain understanding. Unfortunately, Harrison has assembled such a cast of prize pills whose activities are so poorly motivated that, after a few minutes, one struggles not to tune them out altogether.

"To the future. May it get here soon," says Pam on New Year's Eve 2012, in the first -- but not the last -- instance of heavy irony in Harrison's script. Pam, who does something in finance -- the author is weak on specifics -- is married to Jules, who, we are told, is working, desultorily, on a dissertation about something or other. They are entertaining their best friends, Ezra, a blocked writer, and his spouse, Chris, who seems to live on a trust fund. Most of the play unfolds in Jules and Pam's Brooklyn home, a stunner, in Allen Moyer's set design, that includes high ceilings, wood floors, and bookcases that seem to go on forever; although we don't see it, there's also a roof garden for barbecues. Add in the fact that Jules and Pam are planning to have a child, and what could be bad?

The action, unfolding over the next five years, provides multiple answers to that question. A baby is born (unhappily named Hartley), but there is little evidence that he brings joy into the lives of his two mothers. Instead, as the years slip by and he refuses to speak, he becomes a source of considerable anxiety. (One of the more telling bits in Pam MacKinnon's production occurs when Hartley is overheard crying on the baby monitor and the adults' conversation comes to a full stop, everyone listening in nervously.) Weirdly, both Jules and Pam slip into the baby's bedroom for long conversations with the infant, who in these scenes becomes quite loquacious. I suppose you can assume that these are supposed to be fantasy projections; in at least one case, Hartley tells Pam something she doesn't know about Jules. It's a confusing device that adds little or nothing to our understanding of the characters.

The second destabilizing factor introduced into this demi-paradise is Henry, né Helen, Ezra's high-school best friend, whose appearance on the scene brings out the worst in everyone. Jules worries about the political havoc that will be caused when "at some point, a trans person will say, 'I made a mistake. I was so sure. I thought I was a woman born in a man's body...But I gave it a try, and it turns out I do not like being a woman at all. It turns out it is a giant bummer. I don't like my breasts, they hurt my back. I don't like my little nub in place of a majestic penis..." Ezra cops to causing huge embarrassment by referring to Henry and his girlfriend, Myna, as "the girls." Indeed, rather than showing any sympathy and support for his friend's difficult journey, he is filled with resentment: "So he's Henry now, fine, easy, but am I supposed to edit all my memories and do a search-and-replace?"

And this is before Henry shows up: During a get-together, he and Myna ("the parrot girl," in Jules' dismissive characterization) are subjected to rude, intrusive questions. Jules wants to know if Myna only dates trans guys. Chris, who is black, takes exception to being characterized as "cis," saying it puts him in the same category as his tormentors back home in Wichita, who called him the usual epithets associated with gays and blacks. Ezra adds, "You're saying they're cis guys and Chris and I are cis guys and all of us got the keys to the kingdom, and I'm sorry but it didn't feel that way for the first three decades-plus of my life." Later on, he snaps, in frustration, "God. We're all so f---ing afraid of being politically incorrect." Actually, this is last thing worrying anyone in Log Cabin. So insufferable do the characters become that Myna, who is much younger and a kind of 21st-century hippie, blows up, indicting them all for their conspicuous consumption and overall pettiness. Having cogently stated the obvious, she exits, at which point, for my money, the evening could have arrived at a satisfactory conclusion.

Instead, Harrison has all sorts of implausible developments to roll out. Just before Myna's exit, Jules and Henry have retired to the baby's bedroom, where, out of some weird mix of provocation and morbid curiosity, she masturbates herself in front of him -- just the sort of thing every mother wants her toddler to see. (It's a fairly ridiculous twist, since it has long been established that the baby monitor broadcasts everything that happens in the room; it is not the only unmotivated, easily discovered act of adultery that will take place.) Ezra and Chris are being ripped apart by the latter's desire to have a baby, but the situation never means much, as the author declines to explore their warring points of view. This sets up a situation in which Henry, who has retained his uterus, agrees to carry a child for them -- despite his aversion to doing so for himself, not to mention the personal cost of going off his testosterone treatment. In any case, what follows is guaranteed to further roil this self-involved, constitutionally unhappy bunch. It doesn't help that the dialogue is loaded with would-be zingers. After one such comment, Jules adds, "That wasn't actually wit. Sometimes if you deliver it well enough, people can't tell." It's an approach that is applied assiduously, and to little effect, throughout.

MacKinnon's direction is smooth enough, but there is little she can do about the limp dialogue and gaping holes in the script. Jesse Tyler Ferguson is such an assured comic actor that it's painful to see him wrestle with the role of Ezra, whose navel-gazing ways quickly become insufferable. Phillip James Brannon fares a bit better as Chris, but the character is so badly underwritten that he barely seems to exist. Dolly Wells' crisp British diction can add some snap to a line like "We are shopping for sperm," but the character's endless attitudinizing is fatally off-putting. As Pam, who prefers to avoid the conversational fray, Cindy Cheung amuses with one-word answers, and she does her best with a long speech about the reality of marriage that is enough to scare the affianced in the audience into handing in their engagement rings. Ian Harvie contributes some much-needed appeal as Henry, although he can't really negotiate his character's hairpin motivational turns. Talene Monahon's acutely rendered Myna exits the action far too soon.

Moyer's attractive set also makes room for additional locations, including a bar and a subway station; Russell H. Champa's lighting adapts well to each of these. Jessica Pabst's costumes make clear how much Henry and Myna are interlopers in the others' posh world. Leah Gelpe's solid sound design includes such effects as baby cries, rain, and a television broadcast from election night 2016.

There is a mordant point rattling around somewhere in Log Cabin -- which, contra the misleading title, is not about gay and lesbian Republicans -- but the arguments are so pro-forma and the characters so thinly drawn that it quickly devolves into a victimization Olympics that neither amuses nor stimulates. There are real crevices to be explored as the gay and lesbian community expands to include trans and gender-fluid people, as well as class issues that need further examination. But this shallow, sour comedy isn't even remotely up to the task. -- David Barbour

(26 June 2018)

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