Monday, June 25, 2018

37 (2018-2019): Review: LOG CABIN (seen June 21, 2018)

“The Cis-Boys, Cis-Girls, Gays, Lesbians, and Trans Guys and Girls in the Band”

Log Cabin, Jordan Harrison’s new play at Playwrights Horizons, is a lot funnier than his glum but much-lauded—if not on this blog—Marjorie Prime at the same venue in 2015. It packs a sizable number of laughs into its intermissionless 90 minutes, but its episodic, skeletal plot, populated by skin-deep characters preoccupied by issues of gender identity, only fitfully overcomes the impression of it being a cable-TV sitcom pilot. 

Cindy Cheung, Dolly Wells, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
That impression is further highlighted by the presence of the popular Jessie Tyler Ferguson, whose characterization of Ezra, a breathless, lightly effeminate, sardonically wisecracking, gay man, is considerably like that of Mitchell Pritchett, the breathless, lightly effeminate, sardonically wisecracking, gay man he’s been playing on TV’s “Modern Family” for years.
Cindy Cheung, Dolly Wells. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In Harrison’s formulaic equation, Ezra, a writer, is married to Chris (Phillip James Brannon), occupation vague, a black man from a privileged background in Wichita, KS. Their best friends are the British Julia a.k.a. Jules (Dolly Wells) and her high-earning, Asian-American (at least here) wife, Pam (Cindy Cheung). The other adults are Ezra’s childhood friend, Henry (Ian Harvie), previously known as Helen, a transgender man whose verbose young girlfriend, Myna (Talene Monahon), has a thing for trans guys. And then there are the kids.
Ian Harvie, Dolly Wells, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon, Cindy Cheung. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The action takes place mostly in the women’s Brooklyn apartment, which, judging by a subway scene, is likely in Fort Greene. Allen Moyer’s stylish setting—with its 15-foot tall, laddered bookcases, islanded kitchen, and brand new roof garden entered via a window on an exposed-brick wall—suggests an old place expensively redone. Placed on a turntable, the set, handsomely lit by Russell H. Champs, smoothly transitions to a child’s bedroom or Chris and Ezra’s bedroom, as needed.
Phillip; James Brannon, Dolly Wells, Talene Monahon, Cindy Cheung, Jessie Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Taking place in a series of scenes ranging over five years from 2012 to 2017, Log Cabin is largely devoted to clever chatter, mainly about what it’s like to be an “outsider,” usually in the context of gender identity, but also—although not deeply examined—racially. Chris notes, for example, that “The world is changing too fast for people to understand,” so the characters do their best to try to make sense of how such changes are affecting them. Much attention is also paid to the way in which various identities within the LGBT community view each other (hint: it's not necessarily favorable). 
Talene Monahon, Ian Harvie, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One plotline concerns Pam and Jules decision to go “shopping for sperm” so Pam can conceive a child, the result being a baby named Hartley. The plot thickens slightly, in more ways than one, when Henry arrives with Myna, the millennial girl he picked up at some Burning Man-like gathering. After Myna—in a scene that stretches credulity—overhears something she shouldn’t, she’s gone, and the bearded, butch Henry, who still has his uterus, becomes vulnerable to a request by Ezra and Chris for him to bear their child. 
Phillip James Brannon, Jessie Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Apart from this setup—other than another farfetched contrivance that, for a time, separates Ezra and Chris—not much of consequence happens. Instead, the characters hang out over drinks, cheese, and quince paste, chewing over their particular sexual preferences, revealing their limitations in understanding other behaviors, covering the political implications of modern gender attitudes and choices, examining the evolving vocabulary (like the term “cis”), and expressing thoughts and feelings about things the meaning of normalcy.
Dolly Wells, Ian Harvie. :Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all their inherent seriousness, these discussions are intended to be entertaining, not profound, and raise questions more than they answer them. Sometimes the talk goes the throw-in-the-kitchen-sink route, touching on social media “likes,” consumerism, income distribution, and even the meaning of evil. The unexpected outcome of the latter detour, though, in which Ezra complains that “this country has become too liberal,” and suggests that “liberalism is a kind of mass conformity” appears to be Harrison’s hint that Ezra is a Log Cabin Republican, thus providing a reason for the otherwise baffling title.
Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
On the other hand, what little we see of Ezra’s reaction to the 2016 presidential election is anything but elated; the election itself is a minor motif that seems little more than a red herring used to establish a time period and remind a New York audience of its own disappointment.

A touch of whimsical, if only passingly funny, novelty intrudes when Hartley, who has worried his moms by taking longer than usual to begin talking, is played by the grownup Harvie as a generally contradictory partner in imaginary conversations with both Jules and Pam when they need to fill their respective voids. This allows the infant to say, while chatting about a bedtime story: “It’s a little schematic, don’t you think? You could bury the bedtime message better.” Later, when Chris and Ezra’s baby is born, the elder Hartley mentors the newborn during their own philosophical colloquy about what the future holds in store.

A fine cast, costumed by Jessica Pabst in modish clothes to represent the characters' privileged status, is directed by Pam McKinnon to stoke the play’s comic embers for as many laughs as it can get. For my taste, though, there’s a bit too much mutual hugging and stroking when the friends lounge about, as if we must continually be reminded of how much these nontraditional couples love each other.

Within the otherwise polished ensemble, the most intriguing presence is that of Ian Harvie, himself a trans man, as both Henry and Hartley. He makes Henry convincingly real, although, as written, Henry’s agreement to become a mother/father (or whatever) comes too easily for someone who’s undergone two years of transitioning and will have to lay off his beloved hormones. As baby Hartley, Harvie’s matter-of-fact reactions help make those quirky scenes click,

Jordan Harrison is a wit to watch. Here’s hoping that, next time out, he can house his precious gift for rousing laughter in a sturdier structure than Log Cabin.


Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 15