nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
April 5, 2008
"Gay Bait," the speed-dating event at the center of David Sisco's hilarious play Bait, takes place at a Hell's Kitchen Howard Johnson's in a time the play's program describes as "Tonight." The rules of the game, as explained by the deeply troubled couple that organized it, are relatively simple: each participant is given a red or blue coin and a scorecard. Those with red coins stay where they are; those with blue coins rotate. Each pair has three minutes to interact, scope each other out, interview one another or, as proves to be the case as the evening plays itself out, make fools of themselves. At the end of those three minutes, a whistle blows. The rovers then proceed to the next person, where they are given another three minutes. After each encounter, people rate each other on their scorecards. At the end of the evening, the scorecards are gathered and evaluated. Those with matching high scores are given each other's contact information.
Into this fray walk Justin and Charles, two friends with divergent agendas. Justin is the more adventurous of the two and he wants to spend the evening meeting people and, if the moment is right, engage in a hook-up. He's also out to show Charles, a sensitive and cynical sort who hasn't dated in a while, a good time. Charles doesn't seem to have much faith in the event though, and his presence there is pretty much against his will. But before we are allowed to ask why this is, the whistle blows and our heroes are off. Adult swim has begun.
The dating pond into which they dive is pretty shallow and not incredibly well kept. There is Devon, for example, an actor who introduces himself to Justin by presenting his resume and launching into a Blanche Dubois monologue. Then there's Drake, a husky-voiced primate who tells Charles he's looking for a third person to complete a threesome with his boyfriend. (Drake will sleep with anyone by the way: man, woman, man-woman, and he's got the perfect set of lewd gestures to state his case.) Drake's boyfriend is on the other side of the room though, telling Justin he's at the event looking for a new boyfriend because Drake is, well, Drake.
There is also the pedantically amused Psychology Today writer who's doing research on relationships between gay men and asks Charles for his phone number because he finds Charles's point of view refreshing. And then there is a nameless man who lives with his mother and has a very deep and meaningful relationship with coffee.
The pickings are slim at the Howard Johnson's and the parade of weirdos Justin and Charles encounter is endless. The evening is full of helpless men, one after the other, exposing themselves, their quirks, and their follies through the filters of Justin and Charles. And in different hands, the proceedings, coming in a quick 60 minutes, might easily have come across as mean and incredibly cynical if not for a couple of tricks up its theatrical sleeve.
The first of these has to do with the fact all of these characters are portrayed by two actors. Tom Gualtieri and David Sisco play roughly 14 characters apiece and do so with smarts, energy, and originality. They jump from character to character, manipulating their bodies, their voices, their faces, and their personalities without ever veering into the realm of cliché. Their character work ranges from the profanely obvious to the sweetly subtle and the duo works wonderfully together, nimble enough to allow the other's characters to take necessary focus and generous enough to let go of the spotlight to let the other performer shine.
But far from relying on the conceit of its casting, the pair is well supported by the content of its material. David Sisco's script turns what could have been 60 minutes of dating disaster anecdotes into a more thoughtful look at the process of dating. He gives his characters stories and allows them to speak. Some stories are told through conversations, some through gestures, some through silences and some, in the case of one outlandishly enthusiastic Trekkie, through defense mechanisms. In its own way, the play seems to subtly suggest that yes, these people are strange and anti-social but if that was their sum total, what are they doing in the same room as Justin and Charles?
I recently read an article by Kalefa Sanneh in which he writes this description of hope: "You don't hope because the odds look good. You hope because they don't." It's an idea which strangely reminded me of this show.
Bait is a funny play. It's buoyant, it's well directed (by Laura Josepher), it's intelligent, and even though I didn't agree with the choice of its conclusion, it contains a kernel of real wisdom because at the heart of its comedy there is the recognition of the damage that causes hope. I won't spoil the show by telling you how, but in some ways it recognizes that these crackpots are no different—that inherent in Justin and Charles's lack of faith in the speed dating process is the hope that by merely showing up, a prince will emerge from this group of frogs and that a match can be manufactured not only in heavenly spheres, but in the very real confines of a Hell's Kitchen Howard Johnson's.