At the beginning of the last century, love was a novel, middle-class convention and marriage was a social arrangement based on economic necessity. In the tiny universe of yesterday, individuals met and coupled primarily due to parental intervention and economic circumstance.
After two world wars, the Cold War’s conclusion, exponential technological advancement providing limitless possibilities, and the continuation of the paradox of war and peace running simultaneously depending upon where one is born, conventions of love and marriage have been through head-spinning iterations.
However, some things remain. There is still the economic arranged marriage for some; culturally, the rich usually marry those in their uber-wealthy networks. For the underclasses, love and partnerships take new forms with a sublime twist: the appearance of “choice,” through the filters of online dating sites and online matching opportunities. If this does not float one’s desperately sinking boat, there is always random circumstance and the neighborhood or hotel bar, or singles meat-market clubs.
It is to this last kind of venue where Sue (a superb, always intriguing Julia Stiles) and Bruce (an open, good-willed and sensitive James Wirt) meet and quickly go home to passionately couple, then drift in separate seas of restive “apparent peace” until events bring them together again. This second meet-up is the subject, development and journey of Phoenix by Scott Organ, directed by Jennifer Delia currently at The Cherry Lane Theatre.
The play opens when Sue, a traveling nurse, stops by to visit Bruce, who is surprised to receive her call and pleased to see her. They have not gotten together since their initial, passionate “one night stand.” After a number of humorous riffs during which Organ underlines the exposition and cleverly sets up these two opponents who will be sparring with each other throughout the entire play, we discover that Sue is a hard-nosed nihilist and prophet of doom and gloom (a theme underscored by references to Heidegger and Sartre early on).
Bruce is sensitive and laid-back with an ingenious and clever sense of humor which he heats up to keep Sue engaged and interested. Of the two he is the flexible and grounded one with a “live and let live” attitude. However, revelations are made which indicate that Sue is equally humorous and fun, only something has catapulted her universe from the control she once was able to exhibit.
As the play progresses and we discover how and why Sue has been “set on the edge,” we understand that for both of these individuals, their psyches melt into the ocean’s depths, and beneath the surface there is pain, trauma and a world of heartbreak. The playwright masterfully keeps the dialogue light enough, yet has the shadows hovering over the characters lending an unpredictability which is ever-lurking and threatens to rise and flood.
The repartee is quick and contrapuntal. The two sharpen their wits against each other and joust and parry during the course of Sue’s “talking points,” which lead to the revelation of why Sue has sought out Bruce, someone who she thought she would never encounter again beyond their “one night.”
Throughout their exchanges, the playwright smartly tweaks the audience with themes and conflicts that unfold as Sue and Bruce flip roles back and forth from protagonist to antagonist and keep us guessing at the truth underlying their personas. At Sue’s revelation Bruce also reveals the sadness he experienced in his life, which has modified and softened his outlook and made him more expansive. Sue indicates that she will be going to Phoenix and there, confront a situation that she no longer wishes to avoid. It is up to Bruce to decide whether he will see her through this event or forget about her forever. She leaves the choice up to him, for she has told him where she will go next and what she plans to do, though she has also made it clear his presence is not required and perhaps not even wanted.
It is in Phoenix where the conflicts between these two and their disparate attitudes toward life and death converge and explode. The scene in Phoenix is the play’s high point and Stiles, who has become the antagonist, carries the day. The result is devastating. Wirt provides the counterpoint and we cannot help but empathize with Bruce, now the protagonist, as he bears up against Sue’s vilification. He is kind, stoic, forgiving and loving, and Stiles is brilliant as his ranting antithesis. It is an amazing, beautifully acted scene. Both characters are unmasked in this well-written flashpoint which brings the themes into relief as it reveals the depths of Sue’s fears and despair, and shines on Bruce’s magnanimity, patience and concern.
The playwright suggests that as random as circumstances may be, when individuals meet face to face without a filter, their choices are far from circumstantial. The implication is that life holds tremendous promise if we are open to it and position ourselves to be ready for whatever it brings. It is at this juncture that though the past may be a shambles, a burned out core with not even the vapors rising, from the ashes may come a new hope and rebirth. Maybe love is possible after all, and despite all the intellectual fencing and mental combat, the heart and human feelings that transcend anything knowable bring couples together in the most wonderful and astounding way.
Phoenix is at The Cherry Lane Theatre until August 23.