By MIRA REINBERG
The common dictum of the romantic comedy genre is premised on the boy meets girl situation, an encounter which necessarily engenders altercations and misunderstandings culminating in some composition of accord and communion. In some ways Phoenix, written by Scott Organ and presented by the Anchor Theatre Collective, adheres to the prevailing schema, and stages a drama of an ever-expanding series of obstacles to conciliation or harmony within the couple.
But Phoenix’s accomplishment lies in the tension between the un-shocking circumstances of the plot and the accuracy with which the seemingly predictable story is enacted. The play reminds us that it is literature that can best capture the fluid and conditional experience of relationships and demonstrate this ambiguity in precise and unequivocal terms. In language, or theatrical language.
The script throws us immediately into the frustrating contradiction between the impossibility of experience – here, a relationship – and the categorical and sharply laconic language that delivers it. Sue (Melanie Wehrmacher) and Bruce (Joe Swanson) meet a month after a one-night-stand encounter. Sue announces that there are three things she is there to tell the hopeful Bruce: that she enjoyed their first date, that they cannot see each other again, and almost by chance, on her way out, the reason for her decision. Clearly the pair has quite a bit of road to travel, figuratively as well as literally, for they will embark on a journey from Brooklyn to Phoenix, Arizona.
Undoubtedly the actors in this play will determine the extent to which the spectator will be tuned to the unrelenting ambivalence the characters experience toward each other and the course of action they should undertake. Ms. Wehrmacher and Mr. Swanson both embody this ambivalence engagingly; Ms. Wehrmacher in a performance that combines the resoluteness of her decision with a fragility and hesitation, and Mr. Swanson in a touching execution of self-exposure that admits vulnerability buts retains a witty prism through which to view this very vulnerability.
The dynamics comprising the quandary of this play are ageless even if the dilemmas the characters face are more specific to our age. Interesting is the choice of location: Brooklyn as the most typical place for the initial encounter of the pair; less typical is Phoenix as the spot designated to provide a solution for their predicament. Perhaps these choices signify what critics call “glocality,” the local context that is in fact global and can accommodate protagonists, and audiences, at any point on the globe. Still, these eventualities seem rather directed to modern Western audiences who can identify with approaches to couples’ dilemmas that are not so much existential as they are, even if justifiably, self-indulgent.
One more thought about the choice of character frame. Does the fact that it is the man who inhabits the forthcoming, imploring, and somewhat forlorn side of the equation, whereas the woman represents the obstinate, opinionated personage, capable of making cold-hearted decisions and shunning the trite emotional considerations, even from a clearly defensive position – can this configuration be attributed to the fact that the playwright is a man? Are these correspondences a plainly realistic portrayal of couples’ dynamics or does the casting represent a certain contemporary desire to allegorize the figures of the sexes in a somewhat inverted form, a gendered- inverted nostalgia? Phoenix, under the direction of Nicole Wilder, in its blunt warmth and the endearingly frank usage of the small stage at the Bryant Lake Bowl opens up these questions and challenges our own journeys.
Phoenix by Scott Organ, directed by Nicole Wilder. Anchor Theatre Collective presents at Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota. June 6-24. Tickets Online at BrownPaperTickets.com or at BLB Box Office: 612-825-8949.