What happens when you fold three couples with overlapping friendships and lurking past connections up against one another, throw in gender flexibility and sexual shenanigans, and add an element magic realism where infants speak more coherently than the adult caregivers around them? In playwright Jordan Harrison‘s Log Cabin, currently running at Playwrights Horizons, you have an old-fashioned romantic farce and comedy of manners seen through an early-21st-century social and political lens.
Harrison’s title calls to mind Log Cabin Republicans but it may also refer to places of refuge sought by the play’s characters, their friendships and their homes, from shifting laws and mores. The story begins in 2012, with America on the brink of legalizing gay marriage, and extends to early 2017, the shock not yet worn off from the 2016 presidential election.
There are no cis-gendered heterosexual relationships in this play, a rare and rich dramatic context whose potential remains unrealized in this story of young adults learning the ropes of adulting. It’s the dramatic journey of people who feel they are suddenly grownups with money and the power to form relationships, and who then struggle to make it all work.
Ezra (quippy and lovely Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Chris (delightfully clueless Phillip James Brannon) have been together several years, are recently engaged, and have an ongoing argument about whether to have a child. Much of the action takes place in the gorgeous book-lined loft-ish Brooklyn apartment — courtesy of set designer Allen Moyer and two well-choreographed turntables — owned by married Jules (angular and witty Dolly Wells) and Pam (soft-spoken and powerful Cindy Cheung). Ezra’s childhood friend Henry (funny and heartbreaking Ian Harvie) and his new younger girlfriend Myna (hippy earnest Talene Monahon) come for drinks and unpack how they met, Henry’s gender transition from Helen, and how the younger Myna reacts to the group of 30-somethings a decade her senior.
Wells, as Jules, gives a performance that hints at a role deeper than the one written here, and Cheung’s Pam feels like a comfortable match: you believe the longevity of their relationship and what balanced parents they’ll be to their nonverbal toddler son. Monahon’s Myna, by contrast, is the least nuanced character; she’s more of a rebuff to the challenges of her elders when it comes to money, children and jobs, since she’s more interested in exploring the world. Harvie’s Henry links many plot points, has a story somewhat lost in the self-centered maelstrom swirling around him, and has a number of lovely speeches.
Director Pam MacKinnon keeps all the plates spinning — and the turntables, too. It’s also important to note that gender identity is used here as a storytelling tool, not as the point of this play, yet the fact of Henry’s gender identity allows for several interesting possibilities and relationship between characters. There’s Ezra to Henry, for example, when making the case for Henry to carry his child:
My whole life it’s ‘Smear the Queer’ and getting slammed into lockers, and then I wake up and I’m Mr. Mainstream Privilege.
I didn’t see it happening.
Do we feel for Ezra, and see Log Cabin as just another chapter in the endless supply of thirtysomething-like stories to be written as each new generation hits its childbearing years and becomes their own parents?
There are also deeply felt moments that take your breath away. Henry — who was Ezra’s school chum back when he was Helen, and still retains his uterus — ponders what Ezra, along with Chris, asked about. “I wanted to be one thing,” Henry says, imagining the cost of going off hormones while carrying a pregnancy. “I didn’t want to be in between.” After all, an intermediate gender position was not what Henry strives for. “Some people like being ‘they.’ They like being in-between, none of the above. I wanted to be ‘him.'” Here we feel Henry’s ache. Here we feel the challenge of a trans man to maintain his physical and emotional status.
Pam offers a great — and very adult — conclusion toward the end of the play, one reflecting on the nature of marriage and how to stick it out. “Sometimes you have to forgive people,” she says to Ezra after he tells the story of Chris’ dalliance with a cab driver. “Not just for them,” she adds, “but for you.” Yet Ezra is recalcitrant. Pam presses on: to keep a long-term relationship together, you have to not sweat some things, as in any marriage: “This is real marriage. This is what straight people have been doing for thousands of years. You marry someone, you make promises, then you find out they’re a little different than you thought. Or you’re a little different than you thought. And you try to keep the thing from dying.”
Potent words, yes, but diluted as noted by the inelegance of some of Harrison’s plotting. It may or may not be too soon to use election night 2016 as an end-of-scene jaw-dropper but why have the results announced and the characters march on? Similarly, some characters are clueless about language, like “cisgender”; regarding transgender politics, don’t ask about top and bottom surgery, it’s not polite. This is more odd than a group of urban, non-straight, educated, politically liberal characters would be in 2018. And then there’s Jules addressing another major theme with Ezra, with prosaic precision:
Maybe there’s a real family here, right under your noses, and you’re not realizing.
Yes, this seems to be stating the obvious. Is it such a revelation to 30-somethings that building your own family is a possibility?
The play takes on profound, small-scale changes in our social and legal acknowledgment of love is love is love. When playwright Harrison skitters off into another joke or unfettered farcical plotting, the depth of feeling is compromised. When his characters hit on enduring truths, however, his speeches resonate.