nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
March 12, 2006
In Jeffrey Sweet’s Bluff, Neal and Emily meet in one of those chance encounters that seem preordained by fate. Both stumbling upon a victim of a gay-bashing incident in Chelsea at the same time, Neal, a defense attorney, and Emily, a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization, hit it off in the hospital waiting room. A romance begins to bloom, and soon the two are living together and well on their way towards a serious, long-term commitment. Through this engaging prologue—facilitated by the easy-going asides to the audience and fellow actors that are the stylistic hallmark of Sweet’s script—Bluff reminds us that you never know when an unforeseen chance encounter will change the direction of your life, suddenly propelling you into new territory.
But unexpected occurrences can also derail you, and crashing into this urban fairytale romance is Emily’s stepfather Gene, a dental equipment salesman who is visiting New York for a convention, and who has a knack for getting under Emily’s skin. Gene, an overbearing and opinionated blowhard with a penchant for ridiculous ties, is just the type of abrasive, ill-mannered relative to make a perfect comic foil for this self-assured and sensitive New York City couple.
This set-up—combined with the casual accessibility of Sweet’s writing style—prepares one for an affable but trite comedy about the acceptance of other people’s differences. But behind the breezy charm of Sweet’s writing is an insightful and surprisingly moving work that is in part about acceptance—of oneself as well as of others—but also about dealing with the emotional weight of unresolved and complicated family relationships as one grows up and grows older. Gene is more than just a boorish loud mouth for Emily to roll her eyes at. He is also the manipulative and bullying replacement of a dead and idealized father thrust upon Emily at an early age. There is deep-rooted resentment seething here, and as this simple tale unfolds, it brings to the surface not only the problems between Emily, Gene, and her mother Georgia, but also the unacknowledged pitfalls lurking in the perhaps not-so-perfect relationship between Emily and Neal.
There are also many sides to this story, and Sweet and director Sandy Shinner capitalize on this by having their cast members casually break the fourth wall, launch into digressions, argue about past occurrences before reenacting them, break character at the drop of a dime, and float in and out of scenes in a way that manages to tread the line of being gimmicky and does occasionally cross it—but always at interesting places and never for very long. This unorthodox theatrical style—apparently influenced by the work of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe—allows the characters to tell and enact Bluff collaboratively with many dissenting opinions, which may be the perfect narrative form for a piece reminding us that there is more to a situation than in how one person chooses to perceive it.
It’s also a style that is immediately engaging and enjoyable without being heavy-handed, at least not in the hands of Shinner and this production’s fine cast. Ean Sheehy is likeable and charismatic as Neal, and Sarah Yorra as Emily does an excellent job balancing the character’s anger and insecurities while making her appealing enough for us to believe in their relationship. Michelle Best and Luke MacCloskey are surprisingly memorable in their supporting roles, and Kristine Niven holds her own as Emily’s alcoholic mother Georgia. Bill Tatum is terrific in the critical role of Gene, creating a character whose formidable self-confidence might be starting to fade with age. Tatum delivers Gene’s tough-talking words of wisdom and off-putting behavior without ever indicating how we’re supposed to judge his words and actions, and in doing so sacrifices what would probably be a number of cheap and gratifying laughs for a far more interesting and believable performance.
This is something that Bluff manages to do as a whole under Shinner’s direction, and it pays dividends in the inevitable confrontation between Gene and Emily. Here the acting, directing, and writing come together masterfully in a surprising speech delivered by Tatum that is satisfying dramatically without wrapping things up in way that seems cheap or contrived. In this the speech is much like the play as a whole, presenting the complexities of a well-worn theme in a fresh and incisive way.