Teddy meets fellow American Jeremy in the bar of an Amsterdam hotel where both have landed. Teddy brings his new friend upstairs, presumably for a one-night stand. This seemingly simple beginning soon opens up to a more complex exchange between the two men in Ken Urban’s new drama, A Guide for the Homesick. The play unfolds like a modern-day version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, except that the circumstances entrapping the men in the shabby room are of their own making.
The Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere production of Urban’s two-hander about friendship and betrayal at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. In addition to playing Teddy and Jeremy, respectively, McKinley Belcher III and Samuel H. Levine take on the roles of the supporting characters, their close friends Nicholas and Ed. Under the confident direction of Colman Domingo, the action ricochets between the separate events that still haunt Teddy and Jeremy and the consequences of deeds undone that has settled a blanket of shame over them.
Jeremy, who is white, is passing through Amsterdam on his return from a six-month stay in Uganda, where he had gone to work in a hospital. He had hoped to make a difference in the world, but his experience in Africa has gone terribly wrong. When the clinic closed, Jeremy was forced to leave Nicholas, a client whom he had befriended. Jeremy plans to return home to his upscale, achieving family in the Boston suburb of Newton. Teddy and Ed, his colleague from work, came to Amsterdam for a bachelor party weekend before Ed ties the knot with his fiancé.
Teddy, who is black, has also grown up in Boston, but in Roxbury, where the population is largely African-American — miles away from the privileged population of Newton. Unlike Jeremy, who feels an obligation to society in exchange for his easy life thus far, Teddy is ambitious to succeed in the intense cauldron of finance in New York. The irony of the white man redeeming himself in Africa and the African-American man working in New York forms a contrast between them but also adds a subtext to their connection.
In this theatrical tour de force, the timeline slides between the present and the past. Belcher plays not only Teddy, but transforms into Jeremy's friend Nicholas, complete with heavy African accent, a sly manner of teasing Jeremy, and a sideways glance of his eyes to indicate his varying motives. Levine changes from Jeremy into Teddy's stuttering, manic companion Ed, the tortured man who is off his meds and out of his mind. The parallel relationships are explained in confessions from Teddy and Jeremy about each man tuning out their friend’s needs, leaving Ed in danger of himself and Nicholas alone in a hostile community. The tension of not knowing whether they escaped is torturing Teddy and Jeremy.
The themes of responsibility and obligation are paired with issues about sexual choice and finding the courage to admit to being gay — to oneself and to the world. Teddy has come out, but Jeremy has not, although he clearly understands his preference. Nicholas, a gay man in a society that considers homosexuals to be unclean sodomites, has risked his safety for an affair with a closeted married man from Uganda. Although confused about his romantic future with his female fiance, Ed is repulsed by Teddy’s advances.
Urban has written a tight play that conforms to the rules of ancient tragedy. The neatness of the drama taking place in over one night includess a single set (designed by William Boles) that transforms the hotel room into a surrealistic dream scene, lighted by Russell H. Champa.
More importantly, each of the heroes has a flaw that keeps him from fulfilling a moral obligation, that of unselfish loyalty to a friend. If the shadows of the past bleeding into the present seem to steer the work close to fantasy, the anguish of the characters and their need for each other is grounding enough to bring "A Guide For the Homesick" to a preordained conclusion.