By J. Stephen Brantley; Directed by David Drake
Produced by FRIGID New York @ Horse Trade in association with Hard Sparks
Off Off Broadway, Play
Extended through 9.24.16
The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street
by Dan Dinero on 9.10.16
J. Stephen Brantley, Nic Grelli, and Todd Flaherty and in The Jamb. Photo by Hunter Canning.
BOTTOM LINE: Finally, a tale of queers approaching middle age that has nothing to do with wedding rings and baby carriages.
While we’re no longer at the point (at least in New York City) where it’s rare to see LGBT characters on stage, the typical version of queer tends to be…rather safe. In 2016, gays in plays often wrestle with marriage, or monogamy, or having kids. And sure, it’s great that gays can now do what straight folks do. But both on stage and off, this all tends towards the dull side. Thankfully, such is not the case with J. Stephen Brantley’s The Jamb, a riveting take on what it means to get older after years of less than “respectable” living.
The Jamb begins in a rush, almost as if to evoke the meth-fueled high that Tuffer (Nic Grelli) is on. You see, Tuffer loves drugs. And alcohol. And hot young boys in underwear, like Brandon, or is it Brian…Brody? Anyway, this B-something guy (Todd Flaherty) is someone who, as far as Tuffer’s oldest friend Roderick (Brantley) can tell, seems to have spent the night, and really should get going.
But he doesn’t, and for good reason. We learn why as the act progresses, and as Tuffer, Roderick, and Brandon (right? Brandon?) try to explain themselves to each other, and to the audience. There’s a lot of fourth-wall breaking here, complete with direct address and actors chiming in with sound and light cues, and it’s to the credit of playwright Brantley and director David Drake that this doesn’t come off as “clever meta downtown theatre,” but as a legit way for these characters to tell their stories.
That said, act one is primarily devoted to the character development required for the more fulfilling act two, where the guys venture to the New Mexico home of Abigail (Carole Monferdini), Roderick’s mother, a New Agey type who doesn't bat an eye at the talk of addiction, sex, or drugs. And it’s here in New Mexico where the guys are finally able to be honest—with each other and themselves— about who they are and what they want.
One of the best things about The Jamb is the outstanding ensemble cast. All four actors take characters—the hardened urban activist, the aimless drug-addict with a trust fund, the hot young thing, and the aging Southwestern hippie—that might in lesser hands become stereotypical, and turn them into complex portrayals of people who are as surprising as they are strangely familiar. As Brandon, Todd Flaherty deserves special mention; “hot twink in underwear” is potentially the single most-used trope in gay drama, and thus maybe the most difficult to portray. With the help of Brantley’s intelligent writing, as The Jamb progresses Flaherty slowly manages to reveal how Brandon is so much more than we might expect, yet in a way that consistently stays true to who this character is, and is never false or forced. It’s a masterful performance.
It’s also worth noting that Brantley’s play is more than a bit autobiographical: Brantley has been open about his history of addiction and indigence squatting in the East Village in the 90s, and such gritty authenticity clearly informs every aspect of his writing. This is helped tremendously by Audrey Nauman’s spot-on costume design. The dingy Kraine Theatre also helps with the atmosphere, but I’d bet The Jamb could do just as well in a “cleaner” venue. Aside from the costumes, The Jamb is sparsely staged; Andrew Diaz’s set is simply a door on wheels and a few metal sawhorses that become a futon and then a table. And if Drake’s direction can be a bit dizzying—at times the movement of set pieces becomes more confusing than energizing—the overall result is well-paced and full of life.
The play’s title refers to the in-betweenness experienced by those who grew up in the “post-Stonewall, pre-Will & Grace” period of gay history—not in the closet, but not yet completely out of it. But while The Jamb is certainly a generational study complete with perfectly chosen historical references (do you know who Bella Abzug is?), it’s also a potent reminder that we can effect change in the world not only through anger and pain, but also through laughter and joy.
(The Jamb plays at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, through September 24, 2016. Running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7. NO performance Friday September 23. Tickets are $25; $20 for students/seniors. For more information and to purchase tickets call Vendini at 888-596-1027 or visit hardsparks.com.)
The Jamb is by J. Stephen Brantley. Directed by David Drake. Set and Props Design by Andrew Diaz. Costume Design by Audrey Nauman. Lighting Design is by Jonathan Cottle. Sound Design by Mark Van Hare. Fight Direction by Unkledave’s Fight-House. Stage Manager is Leah Montesinos.
The cast is J. Stephen Brantley, Todd Flaherty, Nic Grelli, and Carole Monferdini.