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An Enticing Voice Emerges from the Darkness in [PORTO]

Kate Benson's Brooklyn hit moves uptown.

Julia Sirna-Frest stars in Kate Benson's [PORTO], directed by Lee Sunday Evans, at WP Theater.
(© Maria Baranova-Suzuki)

Boushy, we learn in the opening moments of Kate Benson's [PORTO], is a hybrid of the words "bourgeois" and "douchey," and it describes any number of bars in recently gentrified American cities. They are to Bushwick (where the play originated a year ago) what churches are to Rome — ubiquitous and, to the foodie faithful, sacred. Of course, there are plenty of boushy bars on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where [PORTO] is making its triumphant return in an enhanced production by WP Theater and the Bushwick Starr, in association with New Georges. You might even enjoy a pre-theater drink at one before viewing this comedy that dissects its audience with uncomfortable and uproarious precision.

Porto (Julia Sirna-Frest) is our heroine, and this particular boushy bar is her place, so much so that Doug the Bartender (a blasé Noel Joseph Allain) knows to pour her a glass of Malbec before she even sits down. Raphael the Waiter (the effortlessly flirty Ugo Chukwu) is always ready with a smile and a plate of hasenpfeffer, or whatever other indulgence is on the menu that night. Porto knows she should eat better and drink less, but the temptation of haute cuisine within walking distance of her apartment is difficult to resist. Plus, she reminds herself, Lillie Langtry sued for the right of women to enter such drinking establishments, so just being there is a feminist act.

Julia Sirna-Frest plays Porto, Leah Karpel plays Dry Sac, and Jorge Cordova plays Hennepin in [PORTO].
(© Maria Baranova-Suzuki)

Her best friend, Dry Sac (a strategically sloppy Leah Karpel), seems like she has already exercised her right at another bar when she shows up to complain about her stolen bike. Porto does her best to pretend to care, but she's really paying attention to Hennepin (an endearingly awkward Jorge Cordova), the handsome stranger at the end of the bar eating a foie gras sausage over an enormous David Foster Wallace novel. "Go for it," a voice tells her. But is it really worth disrupting her comfortable solitude with potential heartbreak?

A strictly realistic presentation of this story might look like a poor onstage imitation of HBO's Girls, but Benson delivers something uniquely theatrical with a script that is magical, mischievous, and just plain hilarious. Man-size bunnies appear from the wings to list the ways Porto is deficiently feminine. Later, Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem hold a symposium in her kitchen on how Porto telegraphs weakness to Hennepin. Pointedly, both feminist icons are played by men (Chukwu luxuriates in de Beauvior's French haughtiness and Allain wields his sharpest side-eye as Steinem). Everyone seems to know what Porto should do, but no one is really asking her what she wants.

Doug the Bartender (Noel Joseph Allain) speaks with Porto (Julia Sirna-Frest) and Dry Sac (Leah Karpel) in [PORTO].
(© Maria Baranova-Suzuki)

The luscious demi-glaze on this uncommon delicacy is Benson's own voice, purring stage directions and internal monologues from an overhead speaker (sound designer Kate Marvin makes it seem like she's in our heads too). Listed in the program with Prince-like intrigue as "[ ]", Benson is the omniscient God of this play. She's also the seductive voice of the devil, urging Porto forward even as she instinctively resists.

Director Lee Sunday Evans establishes a particularly close connection between Porto and [ ], so that even when Benson stumbles over a line, Sirna-Frest reacts as if it was intentional. Exhibiting an adolescent bashfulness that has hardened into cutting wit, Sirna-Frest easily embodies the part of someone who carries around two books with her, just in case she finishes one on the train. She's the kind of woman who would know exactly how Simone de Beauvoir would judge her personal life. Crucially, she also knows how to push back.

Evans maintains Benson's intoxicating cocktail of magical realism and timely satire with a pitch-perfect production. A quick ride on the L train confirms how astute Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are: Particularly memorable are Dry Sac's short-short overalls that look like they're from the OshKosh rack at Urban Outfitters. Lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker creates the aggressively dim incandescence of the bar, while Marvin tops it off with an ambient soundtrack that is both sensuous and unobtrusive. We would hang out at this bar, and then immediately regret the decision once the bill came around.

Kristen Robinson designed the set for Kate Benson's [PORTO] at WP Theater.
(© Maria Baranova-Suzuki)

With humor and honesty, [PORTO] dramatizes the late capitalist paradox of having a million avenues for pleasure, but still feeling a gnawing dissatisfaction. "You could have done so much more with all this bounty," [ ] says in a voice as rich as a Médoc, but with an aftertaste of poison. It's enough to make you think twice before stepping into yet another boushy bistro.