Thursday, February 8, 2018

154 (2017-2018): Review [PORTO] (seen February 7, 2018)

“Boushy from Bushwick”

Plays set in barrooms go back at least as far as those featuring Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Pt. 1 and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Soon, one of the classics of the genre, The Iceman Cometh will stumble back to Broadway. 

For now, we can imbibe at one of the genre’s lesser gin joints in [Porto], by Kate Benson, whose A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes was one of the cleverest offerings of Off-Broadway’s 2014-2015 season. Unfortunately, Benson’s new play, a quirkily comic cocktail with a bitter twist of feminism, has a kick more closely resembling a Shirley Temple than a Long Island Iced Tea.
Julia Sirna-Frest, Jorge Cordova. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Benson’s play, which originated last year at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Starr (also responsible for the headier Miles for Mary, at Playwrights Horizons until February 18), has moved to the Upper West Side’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre, where it’s being produced by the WP Theater in association with the Bushwick and New Georges. Both New Georges and WP (Women’s Project) are devoted to women (or, in the latter case, female-identified) artists.
Julia Sirna-Frest, Jorge Cordova. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Kirsten Robinson’s set, nicely lit by Amith Chandrashaker, places us, unusually, on the bartender’s side of a counter that runs parallel to the front of the stage. The denizens of this “boushy” (Benson’s neologism created from douche and bourgeois) Brooklyn saloon, serving artisanal food (bring on the hasenpfeffer), sit under Edison lights in an unnamed, gentrifying neighborhood. They face the audience from the upstage side, forcing the bartender to find creative ways to keep as open as possible.
Noel Joseph Allain, Julia Sirna-Frest, Jorge Cordova. Photo: Maria Baranova.
That dude is Doug the Bartender (Noel Joseph Allain, artistic director of the Bushwick Starr, believable down to his cool, wine-pouring wrist twist), which is how the others address him. Similarly, they call the joint’s other employee, who dreams of owning a bar that sells books, Raphael the Waiter (Ugo Chukwu, always a pleasure).
Noel Joseph Allain, Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The names of the regulars are even more precious, their names all suggesting a type of alcoholic beverage: the principal one is the Malbec-drinking Porto (Julia Sirna-Frest, first-rate), a lonely, anxious, well-read woman in her late 30s, tending to chunkiness. Her very act of going to a bar unaccompanied is seen is an act of feminine defiance.
Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel, Noel Joseph Allain, Jorge Cordova. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Then there’s her overly buzzed, not too bright, garrulous friend, Dry Sac (Leah Karpel, perfectly cast), a beauty who prefers to say “vo-ka” for her preferred drink of vodka and soda. The sole male customer is the Hennepin-guzzling Hennepin (Jorge Cordova, convincing), nice-enough looking, but generally reticent, inoffensive, and otherwise ordinary. Hennepin and Porto’s shared love for particular books (he’s reading David Foster Wallace’s “doorstop” Infinite Jest, which she’s read several times), however, is enough to fuel their motors.
Ugo Chukwu, Julia Sirna-Frest. Photo: Maria Baranova.
And there also are those brackets—[ ]—which not only embrace the title character’s name but denote, in the cast of characters, the amplified "voice of God" narrator (Benson, the playwright), who offers constant commentary, expresses the thoughts of certain characters, and even tells them, with different levels of insistence, how to act. (She also orders Porto to “exeunt,” which means the exit of multiple characters, not one. Quirk or mistake?)

Brackets, as I'm constrained to call her, also seems consumed by the need to explain in the grittiest detail how sausages are created, how goose are force-fed to fatten their livers for foie gras, and how pigs are raised for slaughter. In its indirect way, the play is as critical of our overindulgent eating and other habits as it is about anything else. Good thoughts, of course, but so much time is consumed by Bracket’s verbiage, much of it with the stage’s dark curtain closed and the lights off, you begin to look forward to such moments to catch some z’s.
Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel. Photo: Maria Baranova. 
Later in the play, a scene shift is created by the interesting device of opening an ovoid hole in the rear wall to take us into Porto’s apartment. Here, thanks to the miracle of magical realism, we observe two more characters, feminist icons Gloria Steinem (Allain) and Simone De Beauvoir (Chukwu), behaving and dressed like feminine gay men as they advise Porto on how to assert her independence as a woman by abandoning any desire to serve a man’s needs. It’s momentarily amusing, but begins to look like padding in this 85-minute play.

I must dutifully report that the play elicited a fair share of laughs—some explicable, some not—the night I went; my own humor meter barely moved. The loudest yucks were heard when, in one of Benson’s surrealistic intrusions, a pair of uncredited characters (presumably played by Allain and Chukwu), the Chorus of Dumb Bunnies, entered, wearing huge, fuzzy rabbit heads (the work of costumer Àsta Bennie Hostetter). Their job is to chant to the lovelorn Porto that she doesn’t need to eat or drink so much since all she really needs is to spruce up her looks, get some moves, and find a man who not only has a penis but knows how to use it. Or, as Benson seems to ask, is that too heteronormative?
Julia Sirna-Frest. Photo: Maria Baranova.
None of this prevents me from commending Evans (who did such fine work with Benson’s A Beautiful Day in November . . . , among others, including the Public’s recent The Winter’s Tale) for her fine-toothed direction, or the uniformly talented ensemble. Benson, a graduate of Brooklyn College’s graduate program in playwriting, didn’t reach me with [Porto] but it’s certain to open the portals to other opportunities in the future.


McGinn/Cazale Theatre
2162 Broadway, NYC
Through February 25