To Be Loved
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 2, 2006
To Be Loved takes place in a vaguely apocalyptic future where most people no longer can read and books and magazines are a rarity, and also where homosexuality has been outlawed and homosexuals have been rounded up and killed. Seigen, a monk, is in love with a teenage boy named Paul, but he is fearful of breaking the law and wants Paul to join his order so that they can live, platonically, as brothers. Paul, who is a prostitute, doesn't want to give up sexual pleasure, though he is also deeply in love with Seigen. When their relationship reaches a kind of stalemate, Paul decides to kill himself, thinking that Seigen will either rescue him or jump off the cliff with him.
But Seigen does neither. Years later, he is still living in this repressive society (I'm not sure if he is still a monk), when he meets a beautiful and bright young woman, also a prostitute, on a bridge. Her name is Anon, but Seigen sees something in her that convinces him that she is Paul, reincarnated. Certain that God or Fate has brought his beloved back to him in the socially acceptable guise of a female, he becomes obsessed with her. Borrowing and then stealing money from a rich woman named Dorian, for whom he serves as a kind of intellectual (and sexual) gigolo, Seigen plots with Anon to steal her away from her "owner," a pimp named Dis who years before earned money as a protege and sexual plaything for Dorian's now-dead father. Meanwhile, a mysterious Smiling Man seems to be bent on killing Anon.
Playwright Alex DeFazio has created a complex and perverse web of indebtedness, guilt, responsibility, and power here, but I'm not entirely certain of the points he is ultimately trying to make. The play's sci-fi futuristic setting (especially the strictures against homosexuality and knowledge) makes it feel like political commentary, but the story line doesn't amplify this theme in any clear way. The play's source material, a Japanese tragedy called The Scarlet Princess of Edo, is echoed in Mark Richard Caswell's kabuki-esque costumes, some of the characters' makeup, and Jody P. Person's deliberate, spare staging. But I'm not sure exactly what we're to make of this aspect of the production, apart from homage.
The cast is anchored by Elizabeth Sugarman as Anon, who delivers the one solid, genuinely engaging performance in the piece; her predicament, torn between a tough but fair pimp, a scary psychopath who's trying to kill her, and a stranger who may be able to save her, is the one that draws the most sympathy. Bobby Abid, as Dis, also offers a well-thought-out portrayal, making Anon's owner recognizable and compelling to us, even as we deplore his treatment of this woman who is his "property."
But Albert Aeed (Seigen) and Kelly Markus (Dorian) don't delineate their characters effectively; we never really get a sense of what's motivating them or how they got to where they are. Admittedly, some of this is also a function of the script itself, which sets itself a very ambitious goal of having to define an entirely alien world but does not succeed in making much of this environment understandable or accessible to the audience. The play also shortchanges the character of Paul, who feels very one-dimensional as portrayed here by Jesse Soursourian. Brian Suffalko and Brady Niederer round out the ensemble as, respectively, Dorian's young manservant Nino and the sinister Smiling Man.
The production suffers more than it deserves to from an inhospitable venue (chashama's East 42nd Street space; difficult to work with under the best of circumstances) that is ill-used by director Person. The stage of this theatre backs directly against the front wall of the building, most of which is given over to a glass window. Typically, shows will cover the window with a black curtain, but for some reason Person has decided to keep the curtain open for much of the play. The result of this is that the audience can see what's happening outside on the street, and passersby can see in. This notion is not explained or exploited in any way other than that we see the Smiling Man outside a couple of times; it's a huge distraction that To Be Loved never overcomes.