Friday, May 26, 2017

13 (2017-2018): Review: ROTTERDAM (seen May 25, 2017)

“How Deep Is Your Love?”

Two years ago I posted a mostly negative review on Passport Magazine’s The Broadway Blog about a new play by John S. Anastasi called Would You Still Love Me If . . . , directed by and starring Kathleen Turner. My lead paragraph said:
Stories about the fluidity of gender identity seem currently to be the coin of the media realm, and not only because of Caitlyn Jenner. Ever since 1970, when Myra Breckinridge introduced mainstream cinema to a leading character who had undergone a sex change, theatre, films, and TV have found slow but steady inspiration in gender-bending stories, with characters ranging across the spectrum from cross-dressers to people choosing sex reassignment surgery. Current interest, including Broadway and Off Broadway shows, seems especially high. The newfound celebrity of several transgender actors has even led to criticism of cisgender actors like Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) for taking roles away from them as indicated in stories that appeared on The Huffington Post and, among others.
Alice McCarthy, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Would You Still Love Me If . . . was about a lesbian couple who play the game indicated by the title, during which the big question one asks the other is “Would you still love me if I were a man?” Just how would a lesbian (or a gay man, for that matter) in a committed relationship with a same-sex partner respond to the latter’s decision to have a sex change?
Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Anastasi’s play failed to effectively dramatize this relationship dilemma, where one partner feels herself to be a man trapped in a woman’s body and the other finds herself bonded to someone she didn’t bargain for. Essentially, though, the same quandary faces anyone whose life partner undergoes a radical transformation, such as the result of a physical or mental disability. As the Bee Gees ask: “How deep is your love?” 

With regard to the transgender issue, a far more successful treatment than in Would You Still Love Me . . . can be found in Jon Brittain’s Olivier Award-winning Rotterdam, part of the Brits Off-Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters.
Ed Eales-White, Alice McCarthy, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
British expats Alice (Alice McCarthy), conventionally fem, and Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman), boyishly butch, have been living together for seven years in Rotterdam, Holland. Sharing their apartment is Fiona’s ultra-supportive brother, Josh (Ed Eales-White), who originally came to Holland as Alice’s boyfriend and stepped aside when Alice and Fiona became a thing.  
Ed Eales-White, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The sole outsider is Lelani (Ellie Morris), a flamboyant young Dutch lesbian who works at the same shipping company as Alice. The devil-may-care Lelani, with her multicolored hair, brash makeup, and form-fitting fashions, has her lustful eye on Alice.

The first and weaker of the play’s two acts is preoccupied with expository matters, taking up a lot of time with the women’s insecurity about coming out to their families back home. Alice has written her mom an e-mail but can’t bring herself to send it. Then, after Fiona drops her bombshell about wanting to become a man (named Adrian) on the unsuspecting Alice, she fearfully lets her own parents know about her decision.
Ed Eales-White, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
In Act Two, things get much more interesting as the ramifications of the new sexual dynamic begin to work themselves out. Alice must decide if love conquers gender, if her feelings for Fiona/Adrian are strong enough to overcome her antipathy for a female-male relationship.
Anna Martine Freeman, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Meanwhile, Fiona/Adrian becomes obsessed with how successfully she’s able to present as a man in the eyes of strangers. We watch with voyeuristic fascination as she flattens her breasts with a binder. When things go sour, she expresses her rage and disappointment in a viscerally explosive, tragicomic scene during which, to pounding rock music, she pours down the booze as she discards her macho gear for a flimsy dress and spiked heels.
Anna Martine Freeman, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The situation becomes even more complex in the wake of Lelani’s aggressive pursuit of Alice, who finds her rather repressed personality opening up to new, exciting possibilities in Lelani’s button-pushing company. It, therefore, takes a somewhat melodramatic plot contrivance for the Alice/Fiona situation to be satisfactorily resolved.

Rotterdam packs a strong emotional punch but it also includes a number of savvy laugh lines, some of them tied to scenes where the feelings of people in sexually sensitive arrangements are discussed. For example, Josh answers Alice’s question, “How can we ever know who we’re really attracted to?” with, “Well, that’s easy. It’s whoever you think about when you masturbate.”
Ellie Morris, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Director Donnacadh O’Briain does a marvelous job of keeping the action lively and engrossing, using a terrific background of European pop rock tunes and original music (by sound designer Keegan Curran) to comment on and highlight the action. Still, her preshow staging, with the actors miming various bits of business to bouncy Dutch pop music, leads to the inevitable clash of energies when the music stops and the dialogue begins.
Anna Martine Freeman, Ed Eales-White. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Ellan Parry succeeds beautifully at defining the characters with her costume choices; she also designed the flexible unit set (a closet serves as a somewhat inconsistent metaphorical centerpiece), which, aided by Richard Williamson’s versatile lighting, serves nicely for multiple locales; the actors—most notably Eales-White—handle the shifts with musically coordinated precision.  

The acting is gripping. Freeman and McCarthy partner perfectly, each offering performances of vulnerability and strength. Given the close confines of 59E59’s tiny Theater C, their ability to play with such heartbreaking intensity is commendable. In the two supporting roles, Morris and Eales-White are both excellent, her over-the-top Lelani being precisely balanced by his grounded Josh.
Ed Eales-White, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Rotterdam’s power is a bit dissipated by its overlong two and a half hours; its situation simply isn’t complicated enough to warrant such a lengthy telling. But it’s a better spent two and a half hours than you’ll find at most other recent Off-Broadway offerings.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 10