Don't You F**king Say a Word
Andy Bragen's tennis comedy takes the court at 59E59.
Tennis isn't life, but one can forgive the protagonists of Andy Bragen's Don't You F**king Say a Word for thinking otherwise. Now making its world premiere at 59E59, the fast-paced comedy makes a good case for tennis as an outlet for male aggression. It's definitely an improvement on hand-to-hand combat.
Leslie (Jeanine Serralles) and Kate (Jennifer Lim) are college friends who reconnect by chance at an outdoor café in Manhattan. Kate's boyfriend, Russ (Michael Braun) immediately notices the tennis racket that Leslie's boyfriend, Brian (Bhavesh Patel), is holding: "Original model. St. Vincent," Brian haughtily tells him, telegraphing his connoisseurship. They immediately begin to meet for regular tennis dates. A healthy rivalry morphs into something increasingly deranged as the two men use the game to compensate for underemployment, loss of sexual stamina, and failing physical prowess. They put into tennis the kind of competitive aggression other men reserve for big game hunting, mixed martial arts, and Facebook flame wars — someone will eventually get hurt.
Leslie and Kate narrate throughout, pausing to highlight key moments and wax poetic: "Perhaps mothers with sons understand more, having seen their babies grow and stretch, having seen them get socialized, contorting their way into the small spiked box that is civilization," says Leslie, speculating aloud about her inability to fully understand her boyfriend's strange behavior. They analyze the men in their natural habitat like ersatz Jane Goodalls, which seems fitting: College degrees aside, their boyfriends really aren't more than snarling chimps in tennis shorts (hilarious and somewhat revealing costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter).
But while the men attempt to destroy each other with their power serves, the women are more practiced in their backhands:
Kate: Russ is an honest man. Brian, on the other hand—
Leslie: Yeah? What?
Lim is particularly good at conjuring the kind of lashing niceness required to make such comments really sting. She plays her character as gratingly perfect, the unimpeachable voice of reason. Serralles wears her character's flaws on her sleeve, which makes her simultaneously more relatable and less likable. Russ' weaknesses are also closer to the surface, which is perhaps why he makes a good match with Kate. Braun exudes a nice-guy demeanor that makes it seem like Brian is the one in the driver's seat of this destructive codependency. As Brian, Patel brings a fierce game face to the court, regularly baring his teeth in a smile that would be read in the jungle as, "I'm gonna eat you."
This is an all-star cast as far as off-Broadway is concerned, and they all deliver plausibly human performances, which is fortunate considering that Bragen traffics in occasionally stiff prose and musty Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus-style clichés. It has the potential to get very old, very fast, but it remarkably never does.
Some of the credit surely goes to director Lee Sunday Evans and her slick staging, which keeps our heads in the game without getting bogged down in the tennis minutiae. Amy Rubin's set is a condensed sky-blue tennis court that is completely bare — spare one lonely Wilson ball in the stage left corner (there is no net). This open space allows us to imagine the range of locations Bragan calls for without ever losing focus of the battlefield at the heart of this conflict. Furniture only arrives for a climatic drinking-and-fighting scene, which is so satisfying that we forgive the pause in action it requires.
Bragen is stylistically all over the map as a playwright, with characters slipping in and out of direct address narration and a nomadic perspective that may leave a few audience members scratching their heads. Still, he is very good at evoking the world of the East River tennis courts and the people who inhabit them. New York City is filled with similarly insular tribes: the skaters in Union Square Park, the gay geeks at Rock Bar, and the Hare Krishnas in the subway. Even if you don't particularly care about tennis, Don't You F**king Say a Word will certainly give you pause to reconsider your own obsessions and social circle: Are they any less ridiculous to an outside observer? Probably not.