Fairly early on in An Octopus Love Story, Michael Cyril Creighton (above left), as the cuttingly intelligent and self-important Alex, a gay man, meets Kathy, a good olâ€™ Texas gal played radiantly by Krista Sutton, and he is, it seems, genuinely enchanted by what he finds. Itâ€™s a sweet moment, but it passes quickly, and one might dismiss it as the mere attraction of an effeminate man to a very strong feminine presence. But the encounterâ€™s mix of the retro and the quirky, old values and new, nicely echoes Delaney Britt Brewerâ€™s flawed but entertaining new play as a whole. Itâ€™s about neither octopus passion, as the title would suggest, nor about same-sex love and marriage, as the first main thread of the plot suggests â€“ though both are elements â€“ but rather turns out to be broader and more conventionally romantic at its core, articulating an anguished cry that goes back to Romeo and Juliet and before: We canâ€™t help who we love, we just love. It does take some work really to recognize the cry, because while Brewerâ€™s writing is often smart and engaging, it is also muddled by some missteps common in plays by young writers; but a gifted cast and good dose of humor go a long way.
Kathy and Alex meet in the first place because Kathy is the stepmother of a woman who figures in a scheme Alex has hatched to make his name. The woman, Jane (Kelli Holsopple), is in a long-term relationship with another woman, Alexâ€™s coworker and friend Tosh (Jenny Greer), who like him is insistently hipper-and-smarter-than-thou, and who helped come up with the plan: Jane is to get married to Alexâ€™s longtime friend Danny (Josh Tyson, above right), who is also gay, to show how silly it is that same-sex couples canâ€™t get married when a gay man and a lesbian can marry, despite not loving each other, just because theyâ€™re not the same sex. Whether such a stunt would in reality have any effect on marriage legislation is an open question, but no one has a chance to find out because one of the first people to interview the new couple, a hostile Christian conservative, notices that Jane and Danny, far from the unfriendliness that marked their initial meetings, are acting just like a pair of young lovers. When he calls them on it they realize that heâ€™s right, and everything goes downhill from there, with Tosh and Alex furious at their plans being thwarted (and at apparently losing their lover and friend to â€œthe other teamâ€) and Jane and Danny soon running into difficulties with their feelings that make them unable to enjoy each otherâ€™s company as they had previously.
That brief synopsis sidesteps much of the riot of impulses and ideas that tumble out onstage. Reflecting afterward, one can see the outline of a solid, unique, yet timeless love story that has developed beneath the distractions of frenetic surface plots, but Brewerâ€™s youth as a writer shows. For one, there is the array of half-told sidetracks that donâ€™t contribute much even when they illustrate a little more about a characterâ€™s back story. The first act, for instance, begins with Jane at dinner with a man who is her superior at her office and whose amorous interest in her she hasnâ€™t discouraged, and though this demonstration of her spinelessness (she hasnâ€™t yet come out at work) and her later excuses to Tosh all increase our understanding of her personality, itâ€™s a misleading, somewhat unproductive opening. Similarly, what we hear and see of Janeâ€™s problematic relationship with her family also helps us understand her a bit more, but is more distracting than itâ€™s worth in the end even though, as noted, Krista Sutton has a nice turn as Janeâ€™s stepmother. At yet another point we hear about the time when, as kids, then-nerdy Alex saved a daredevil Danny from drowning. Again, itâ€™s interesting and tells us more about the twoâ€™s relationship, but after the play is over and the main thing that has come out of it is the idea of love not knowing any barriers or artificial divisions, the reason for us hearing about the long ago near-drowning is not clear. The playâ€™s other main weakness is both compensation, perhaps, for the scatteredness, and another sign of Brewerâ€™s inexperience: Everything surrounding the core concept is spelled out far too explicitly, preventing the audience from making the connections and recognizing metaphors themselves. And with a topic such as love, with which most people have extensive personal experience as well as a mental history of countless other love stories, it is even less necessary than usual to resort to telling rather than showing.
Yet, and this is by no means an attempt to sugarcoat things, the play is fun to watch and leaves one feeling good, even if it doesnâ€™t exactly end with all smiles. The reason, of course, is the talented cast members, who take full advantage of the humor, humanity, and intelligence that are in Brewerâ€™s script (though are sometimes overshadowed), and who are well directed by Mike Klar, co-founder of the producing company, Kids With Guns. Danny is the only really likable one of the four main characters, and Josh Tyson plays him with just the right mix of warmth and hesitation, but the others get their pomposity (Alex and Tosh) and frequently whiny insecurity (Jane) acted out with such expert energy that you almost do like them, at least at times. The pleasure of watching them make the most of the play is enough to make its weaknesses fade and enjoyment of its quirky drama come to the fore. - Mallory Jensen
An Octopus Love Story closed May 20 at Center Stage, 48 West 21st St., NYC.
Ms. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.