What happens when a one-night stand leads to something more? That question seems to be floating around the mind of playwright Scott Organ, who tries to figure out the answer in a 70-minute one-act titled Phoenix. Premiering in 2010 at the Humana Festival and making its off-Broadway debut the same year at Barrow Group Theatre, the two-character romantic comedy-drama is currently receiving a somewhat-higher-profile revival at the Cherry Lane Theatre, starring established stage and screen vet Julia Stiles and up-and-comer James Wirt. While it's no doubt that they have chemistry, neither is able to mask the lackadaisical quality of the script and Jennifer DeLia's amateurish direction.
Stiles and Wirt play Sue and Bruce, a pair of rather aimless New York 30somethings who hooked up one night prior to the play's start, after a particularly intense game of bar trivia. Sue promptly skipped town — she's a traveling nurse — only to show up on Bruce's doorstep (well, at a mutually-decided-upon bar) with an unexpected plus-one growing inside her. When she declares that she's planning to "take care of it" alone — in Phoenix, Arizona — Bruce insists on crossing the country to accompany her.
In Organ's hands, Sue and Bruce are little more than sketches of characters who aren't colored in with pasts — it's almost as though the play was intended to be an acting-school exercise. At least Sue, a cipher of a character who undergoes an extremely jarring eleventh-hour shift in personality, reveals what little biographical details she has: two cats that live with her mother. Bruce, on the other hand, has no job to speak of, no family, nor anything else. The dialogue — short, clipped sentences — comes off as stilted, theatrical representations of the way people speak in real life, as opposed to actually sounding human.
Phoenix marks the stage debut of director DeLia, a filmmaker and screenwriter by trade. DeLia's inexperience working in this particular medium proves how different directing for the stage truly is. Her staging moves at a dirge-like pace, with bookending blackouts, inappropriately long transitions between scenes, and very low stakes. In addition to the story itself and the production's aimless direction, Stiles and Wirt must also contend with a vague, abstract set (by Caite Hevner Kemp), augmented with abstract paintings (by artist Burton Machen); ear-splitting incidental music (Janie Bullard is the sound designer); and lighting so dark you can barely see their faces on stage (Rick Carmona, a director of photography for music videos, is the rookie lighting designer).
Stiles and Wirt are left to figure out on their own what makes Sue and Bruce tick, and without much help from the text or director, they flounder for the duration of the play as they attempt to find the humanity within. Only costume designer Amit Gajwani is a helping hand, providing the pair with wardrobes that at least partially provide insight into their characters. It's hard not to wonder what a more experienced director and a fleshed-out story could have coaxed out of the actors.
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