by Richard Dodds
Whenever college kid Rory feels a little bit blue, he takes solace in the wisdom passed down by sages past. Like Jerry Herman. "Where's that boy with the bugle?" he wonders after one of his numerous missteps in the minefield of sexual self-discovery. Or Merrill and Styne. "I'm the greatest star," he sings to bolster himself after a lousy acting exercise. But don't get any wrong ideas. "I am not gay," Rory directly tells the audience despite his show-tune self-medication. "This is a gay play," he says a few moments later, "and everybody expects me to come out at the end." No spoiler alert is necessary to report that the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes and no.
This is the world of Slugs and Kicks, a new comedy by Theatre Rhino Executive Director John Fisher, who has staged its premiere at Thick House. It's a world of a considerably lighter tone and socio-import than many of his previous plays with such titles as Ishi: The Last of the Yahi and Barebacking: A Sex Panic Comedy. The new play, inspired by Fisher's confusing college years at Berkeley in the 1980s, is an amiable and lightweight flutter down a memory lane often paved with absurdist steppingstones.
For the characters involved, however, every budding romance, sexual stirring, and amorous rejection carries far more dramatic weight than anything presented in the drama department where, even in this refuge for outliers, Rory can't quite fit in. He doesn't seem to be a very good actor, unable to break from an emotional shell that holds all offers of physical contact at bay. Meanwhile, romances do spin around him, as partners change and reconfigure. Rory, in fact, is an object of desire, by the alcoholic raging queen who cast him in a play so as to screw him, and by the college girl with whom he platonically shares an apartment. When Rory rejects her vagina, she weepily offers up her anus, figuring a different point of entry will make the difference.
Fisher's ability to throw us off comic kilter with flashes of sexual shock helps keep the play from becoming a series of scenes of campus hijinks. When an actress is not creating credible heat for her onstage lover, the swishbuckling director offers her this note: "Treat him like he's the first guy you've ever blown and swallowed." But some jokes seem uncharacteristically lame. A reference to Bo Derek elicits a response from one of the straight characters that he likes girls named after oil drills. And an audition scene from Fall of the House of Usher leads to wordplay confusion involving "utter" and "udder."
But the multi-scene play on the unit set scampers along agreeably, and while some dark memories are evoked from a couple of the characters, they are not dwelled upon. Ben Calabrese certainly inhabits the adorable persona the others project upon him, and Alexandra Izdebski creates a striking, powerful presence as his sexually frustrated roommate. Asali Echols has the right slightly dense amiability for a girl with a big heart, and Nicholas Trengove displays bicepuality, as in swoony pumped-up guns, but an effortful English accent undermines his Anglo pedigree. Zachary Isen plays the flamboyantly gay director much as you would expect. Finally, there's Marty, in an invitingly go-with-the-flow performance by Robert Kittler, who shows Rory how to accept affection.
Slugs and Kicks, opening a new Rhino season, has a kind of dichotomy as one of Fisher's most personally revealing plays and one of his least dramatically significant. It's Fun 101.
Slugs and Kicks will run at Thick House through Dec. 9. Tickets are $15-$30. Call (800) 838-3006 or go to www.therhino.org.