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First Person: Jake Epstein Gives It to You Straight

The star of Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola's play talks about portraying a gay man struggling to be honest with others — and himself.

Jake Epstein plays Ben in Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola's Straight, directed by Andy Sandberg, at the Acorn Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

As of tonight, I have completed 21 previews and nine official performances of Straight, a new provocative play by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola.

Let me tell you — fidelity and confusion have never been so sexy!

But I get ahead of myself. It has been a sheer joy getting to play the protagonist, Ben, in this world premiere. Ben is a man who, to quote our show's tagline, "Likes beer, sports, and Emily. And Chris." It has been a wild ride of germ-swapping with both of my costars, and understanding Ben's unique struggle. In fact, what first intrigued me about this play was its provocative and fresh take on a coming-out story. What makes it so unique, though, is that Ben isn't afraid of coming out; he's afraid of being labeled or defined as a gay man. The play questions why, in a society that prides itself on tolerance, a straight guy is considered just a guy, but a gay guy is a "gay guy."

Ben is completely immersed in "straight culture." He even has a happy relationship with his best friend and long-term girlfriend, Emily. And yet, there is a part of him that isn't sure whether or not he likes girls. And so he starts meeting up with Chris, a younger guy he meets online. We watch Ben try to figure himself out, as he digs himself deeper and deeper into this hole of cheating, and lying and hurting everyone around him. And then comes the sexy infidelity!

Jake Epstein as Ben and Jenna Gavigan as Emily in Straight.
(© Matthew Murphy)

But in all seriousness, this is the aspect of playing Ben that breaks my heart. Ben loves his girlfriend, and wants to start a life with her, and yet he may not be attracted to her. There are enough reasons to love the life he has with her — reasons that make him able to suppress any other real thoughts and feelings he may have for guys. But as an actor, I was always worried that the cheating makes Ben too unlikable. The real challenge of playing Ben has been figuring out a way to portray him with enough love — and confusion — for the audience to understand his struggle and recognize that his actions are a result of trying to ultimately do the right thing.

As a straight man, I've been asked a lot about how I relate to this part. It's funny, I always get the sense that I am being asked whether or not I'm gay. In my head I always think: does it matter? And isn't the whole idea in the play that it's nobody's business? Sexuality is such a personal thing, and yet gay men are often made to feel weak or in hiding if they are not willing to announce their sexuality.

One of the most affirming and incredible things about our short run so far is that I've had many people come up to me and tell me that Ben's struggle was their struggle, or a friend's struggle. And when I hear that, it makes me so proud and so honored to be able to tell this story and make these arguments onstage. What I love about acting is that you don't have to necessarily be the thing to be able to portray the thing honestly and accurately. And I take this part on with pride, and humility, and a respect for the subject matter. Playing this part has opened my eyes to how our society still has a need to label things, and how far we still need to come to make everyone feel accepted.

Thomas E. Sullivan as Chris and Jake Epstein as Ben in Straight.
(© Matthew Murphy)
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