Don't You F**king Say a Word
Written by Andy Bragen
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Presented by Andy Bragen Theatre Projects
at 59E59 Theaters, NYC
November 4-December 4, 2016
Tennis, like any individual sport, isolates two people in a contest of focus and will, a push and pull of competition against one another but also against themselves. Andy Bragen's new comedy, Don't You F**king Say a Word, takes tennis as its structural conceit and thematic vehicle to great effect. Playing out on a white-lined, light blue set that evokes a tennis court folded up to create walls, Bragen's hilarious play creates a snapshot of two years in the friendship of a pair of New York City couples. After Kate (Jennifer Lim) and Leslie (Jeanine Serralles), who knew each other in college, have a chance encounter on the streets of New York, it does not take long before their respective boyfriends, Russ (Michael Braun) and Brian (Bhavesh Patel) are indulging their shared tennis obsession and machismo on the court with one another. Don't You F**king Say a Word begins at the end of the two years it covers, and the two women are our guides, addressing us directly, slipping in and out of the scenes with the men, which take place mostly in flashback. Kate and Leslie start by saying that they hope to make some discoveries about what makes men tick, about their "secret spaces," but they end up revealing at least as much about their own "deep wells that drive" them forward as women and their similarities to the male behaviors that they wish to dissect.
Kate, who works in the non-profit sector and practices yoga, and Leslie, who has a dearth of real friends in the city and a tendency to become a little too intense too quickly, are both seemingly the more together partners in their relationships. Russ, who has a temper that Kate also interprets as an erotic forcefulness, and Brian, whose smugness when he is winning covers self-doubt, are both underemployed and at or nearing middle age. The play asks what underlies the kind of athletic obsession that ends up linking these four individuals, especially when those obsessed may be mediocre players at best, despite how highly they rate themselves. Why do they buy what amount to costumes and toys? Why do they play with such ferocity, as if their lives depended on it? Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the answers that emerge connect to issues of control -- over the body, over the trajectory of one's life -- and of self-image. Brian, at 40, feels like he should have accomplished more by this point, and notices that he is getting "weaker, and stiffer," while Russ mourns his receding hairline and fears becoming an embittered busboy rather than a successful actor. In its explorations, Don't You F**king Say a Word employs but also subverts tropes like the differences in gender-coded communication and how sports can act as a stand-in for fighting or sex. Braun and Patel are superb at communicating the barely subsumed aggression in many of their friendly exchanges; and, as the play goes on, we begin to notice Kate and Leslie doing something similar, inserting subtle criticisms of each other's partners, and of each other, with their comments on the men sometimes even doubling as comments on each other. But the relationships are not all negativity and rivalry, or, rather, the rivalry is not merely negative. We also see the different ways that people make connections, along with the feelings that can be hidden in the bluster of competition, and Brian and Russ's tentative bonding, as well as the moments of partner loyalty, are legitimately touching.
After a change in clothing and in the set, the final section of Bragen's play includes an attempt by the characters to make the past past, but past is always present. On the one hand, there is the influence of one's family past, such as Brian's experiences with his overweight, clumsy, tennis-playing father. On the other hand, there is the wider and equally inescapable social history. Russ and Brian play in downtown Manhattan, at the Brian Watkins Tennis Center, which the play sets in the context of both 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. The courts' proximity to these events highlights the idea, introduced early on by Kate, that what happened between two men during one game of tennis is unimportant in the larger picture of an often cruel world, but it is real nonetheless and has real effects. In the end, following some great comedic escalation, Don't You F**king Say a Word pauses, in the conclusion not of either Russ or Brian's story but of their story together, to take stock of what has been gained and what was lost.
In this fast-paced, fun production, all four actors deliver performances of richness and humor. Don't You F**king Say a Word fixes its more heartfelt moments in a comedic framework, and it earns its sincere emotional beats through well-crafted and well-played characters while also being one of the funnier plays that we've seen in awhile. Spending some time with Russ, Kate, Brian, and Leslie is more than worth taking a day off from working on your backhand. - Leah Richard & John Ziegler