Take two steps right. Come downstage. Sit down. Stand up. Do a cartwheel.
The blocking in “Phoenix,” now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is so obvious and obtrusive that you can practically hear the stage directions being read out loud. With a stark stage and almost zero props, the two characters in this comedy noir — about a strange series of first dates — have to fill the gaps between their lines with nonsense “business.” Presumably the director, Nicholas Jabbour, is afraid to let the text speak for itself; instead, there are headstands and whimsical twirls happening right in the midst of conversations. And it actually detracts from the (mostly) smooth banter supplied by Scott Organ’s (mostly) charming script.
That’s not all. There were several choices that began to get really grating the deeper we waded into the 90-minute performance:
1. Every single set piece is arranged flush with the stage. Putting the couch at an angle, for instance, would provide more visual interest. Please give us something to look at, and, if it’s not too much to ask, maybe choose something that defines the space?
2. Settings are very nondescript; we rarely know where any scenes are taking place. The first interaction between protagonists Sue (Julia Stiles) and Bruce (James Wirt) might take place at a bar in Nashville, but perhaps they’re supposed to be at an art gallery in NYC? That would explain the giant, paint-splashed canvases hanging on the back wall. (It does not explain the fact that those paintings feature creepy black-and-white photos of the actors’ faces.)
3. The play should be cut. Several exchanges (including a majority of lines in the final scene) are obvious time-fillers. There are six scenes at about 15 minutes each, and the playwright seems so beholden to structure that he’s intent on hitting his page limit rather than trimming the fat. Editing would only make way for rewrites that might allow us (and Organ) to delve deeper into the thrust of the plot and what makes these two characters tick.
But the biggest problem with this play is that it perpetuates a dangerous trope: The woman who doesn’t know what she wants and the man who will keep pursuing her no matter how much she says no. If this supposedly “romantic” set-up never manifests on stage or screen again, it will be too soon.
The plot of 'Phoenix'
The story is about a guy, Bruce, and a girl, Sue, who were supposed to have a one-night stand. But she reenters his life about a month later to tell him that she’s pregnant. This is only a big deal because doctors told Bruce that he could never have kids. Sue wanted to make sure he knew the truth, but that’s all: She tries to leave before she has to be drawn into a conversation about their obvious chemistry, the fact that she lied about her job (as a traveling nurse) or the huge bombshell she just dropped on him. (This all could have been avoided if she’d just given him the news over the phone.)
Although Sue tries to slip away without any further commitment, she finds this man she barely knows begging to come to the abortion clinic with her. She agrees, but doesn’t think he’ll really show up. You see, the clinic is all the way in Phoenix, Arizona, which is a three-day drive from, well, wherever they’re supposed to be. Of course he does arrive, and the odd couple continues to delve deeper into their twisted romance. By the end of the night, one character will have predictably changed their mind about wanting to keep the child, while the other one changes their mind about wanting a relationship.
Read our interview Julia Stiles and James Wirt to learn more about their thoughts on the play and their characters.
For more theater reviews, follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy.