Writers have dressed up the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” trope for centuries now; from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to every Hallmark Channel movie. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet took his shot at it 20 years ago with Bluff, running now at The Belrose in San Rafael through Nov. 16.
Sweet, long connected with Chicago theater, is also an Emmy-nominated soap-opera writer and the author of Something Wonderful Right Away, a history of Chicago’s legendary improvisational theatre troupe The Second City. The influence of both is evident in this play.
It begins with an actor (Will Livingston) and an actress (Anya Cherniss) hooking up. The fact that they hook up isn’t odd, but the fact that they announce every action they perform—à la the vocalization of stage directions—is odd and made odder by their direct communication with the audience. This “improv game” approach to the narrative, while original, rapidly wears thin.
Before the actor (whose name we learn is Neal) and the actress (whose name we never learn) get much further than the removal of their shirts, an altercation outside Neal’s apartment draws his attention. He breaks up a gay bashing but is then mistaken for a gay basher by a passing woman whose name we learn is Emily (Isabelle Grimm). It’s a pretty damn dark “meet cute,” and soon the original hookup is out of the scene (literally, much to the actress’s consternation) and Emily is in. In less than a New York minute, they are cohabitating.
That cohabitation gets complicated fast, as Emily has long-distance issues with her alcoholic mother (Tamara Chandler) and her mother’s husband Gene (Cameron Stuckey). Emily has had a strained relationship with Gene, a traveling dental supply salesman, for years. The relationship, full of threats and bluffs (hence the title), may have finally reached a breaking point.
Co-directors Joey Hoeber and Dianne Harrison put up a bare-bones production that relies entirely on its cast to find, and run with, the few nuggets in Sweet’s ultra-meta script. Stuckey comes off best, first with a very funny riff on Hollywood’s treatment of dentists and then with a darker look at the realities of living with an alcoholic.
Other than its wrapping, there’s not much new in this package and you can see where it’s going long before its 90 intermission-less minutes conclude. Despite good performances, I’m not sure this is a Bluff worth calling.