Spineless backstory

Bearded Iris

By David Stein
Directed by David Calafiore
Flatiron Theatre
119 W. 23rd St. (330-0680)
Equity showcase (closes Apr. 1)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

In David Stein's Bearded Iris, the action alternates between two men trying to write a play together and the actual play they're writing and rewriting. Toward the end, this play-within-a-play turns into a play-within-a-play-within-a-play when the men's relationship becomes the "script" that's being reworked. But even with these dual storylines, no conflict or emotional depth came to the fore until the final quarter of the play. Until then the production was strangely low-key, and the only intense moments of Act 1-one a tearful breakdown, the other a confrontation involving a Holocaust survivor-passed without further exploration or resonance.

A big part of the problem of Bearded Iris is that the two "real" characters in the play, Roger and Gary, were underdeveloped and underacted. The two men are lovers; they tried writing a play together once before; Roger's mother died when he was a teenager. That's about all that is revealed about either man. Without knowing how they met, how long they've been together, how they make a living (it doesn't appear to be from playwriting), what happened to their first collaboration, and what issues they have in their relationship, the audience was hard-pressed to feel involved and moved by their current predicament.

Two of the characters created by Roger include a Holocaust survivor and a meddling Jewish mother, but his issues with Jewish identity are never discussed; in fact, whether he's Jewish is never discussed. Neither of the bland actors playing the partners, Joel Briel and Michael Rhodes, invested personality in his character, and the affection they showed for each other seemed more friendly than romantic.

The three actors who portrayed the characters in Gary and Roger's play gave it their all. Rahti Gorfien got almost all the play's laughs in multiple roles of divergent ethnicities, ages and levels of niceness. Kelly Mizell and Kevin Varner responded capably as their characters were reimagined by their creators-she fluctuated from diligent wife to high-decibel shrew to insecure coed; he varied as a self-absorbed oddball, liberated geek and headstrong student.

When, in the late plot twist, Gorfien, Mizell and Varner became the ones who are scripting the story of Gary and Roger, the play felt like tell instead of show. Gorfien insists it have a happy ending because the two men are deeply in love, but that passion had not been depicted onstage. And the only struggle in the relationship (other than their disagreements over the play) occurred immediately before, when they fought over mutual betrayals. Because the intertwining stories of the playwrights and their play had been so lackluster, self-referential comments about how walking into one's own play is gimmicky and how gay sex scenes freak out the audience come off as contrived rather than clever. Those jokes, along with Gorfien and the others' discussion of Gary and Roger, treated the relationship-and play-as if it was more interesting than the one the audience actually witnessed.

The entertaining part of Bearded Iris was an absurdist scene scripted by Gary: Varner prances about in a tutu, and Mizell transforms à la Ionesco into an iris, with her legs turning stem green, purple petals growing from her neck, and her face sprouting a golden beard. The costumes made for a great sight gag.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 Adrienne Onofri