Rotterdam, the Olivier Award-winning play by Jon Brittain, is in New York as part of 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series. Staged with bright color and a brisk pace by director Donnacadh O’Briain, this Hartshorn-Hook production is a remarkable fusion of classic scene-crafting and up-to-the-minute social concerns – gutsy, wrenching, and beautifully acted.
As a story of love facing tremendous obstacles, Rotterdam has a traditional theme. Yet as a tale of lesbian partners torn apart by one’s decision to transition to a man, it feels ripped from the headlines.
Alice (Alice McCarthy) is a hooded personality, magnetic in a mysterious sort of way, a Brit who has exiled herself to the ultra-tolerant Netherlands to live with her girlfriend Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman) and avoid coming out to her conservative parents. Seven years on, Alice is still trying, with Fiona’s gentle encouragement, to psych herself up to come out – via email, the “safest” way she can think of – to her folks back home. All the while she’s envied self-assured Fiona, who, out since she was a teenager, appears confidently “butch” and with nothing to hide.
Except that she does. And thereby hangs this roller coaster of a tale. The opening scene telegraphs both the drama and the humor to come, as Alice frets and equivocates over whether to send the long-delayed coming-out email home. Fiona hovers, offers to help, backs off, acutely sensitive to her lover’s excruciating dilemma. A three-dimensional portrait of a complex relationship unfolds before we’ve even learned Fiona’s secret.
Brittain’s script plays this game sharply throughout, holding onto its revelations then springing them like the New Year’s Eve fireworks Alice fears.
Exquisitely toned performances make Alice and Fiona extraordinarily real. Indeed, while Fiona is the one coming newly to terms with a fundamental aspect of her character, most resonant of all is the effect her transition has on Alice, and it’s this that forms the play’s emotional core. Alice is the partner who is truly repressed, weighed down with fears right and left, an avatar for the human condition – especially the introverts’ condition – in all times and places.
Making things even more stark is the id to Alice’s superego, her young co-worker Lelani. In a firecracker of a performance Ellie Morris (with the help of Ellan Parry’s sparkly costumes) makes Lelani a hyper-gregarious glammed-up club kid. On her own in the city for the first time, she’s raring to experience all it has to offer; yet, drawn by Alice’s weird, sulky magnetism, Lelani develops an full-bodied adult crush on Alice, while her solicitousness offers Alice an escape from the fresh trauma at home.
Lingering in the background is Josh (Ed Eales-White), Alice’s ex, sharing the couple’s apartment and still mourning his long-expired and doomed-from-the-start relationship with Alice – though the full measure of how he fits in is another of the script’s temporary secrets.
The play is full of powerful scenes. To call out just some: Fiona’s terrified coming-out-trans phone conversation with her family; Alice’s rolling around on her tongue the new name Fiona has picked out for herself; later, Alice silently helping Fiona/Adrian wrap a binder over her bosom for the first time; Lelani coaxing Alice onto a frozen-over canal to face her fire-and-ice fears; and Adrian’s simple, self-centered joy at “passing” when he finally meets Lelani, momentarily clueless to the threat the young woman poses.
Though the play is set in the present Google-centric day, its soundtrack of early-1980s music from the likes of Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode suggests that society evolves in a continuum, and that regardless of what the Supreme Court says, we will always have classes of people who struggle both to fit in and to know themselves. In the aftermath of a season of “identity politics” in the U.S., Rotterdam zooms in on a handful of young people whose personal identity politics happen to involve sexual orientation and gender identity, but who could stand in for any and all of us. And it does so with glitz and panache, meaty insight, sinewy dialogue and performances, and top-notch skill from beginning to end on Parry’s tiny, efficient and evocative set. It runs through June 10. For tickets visit the 59E59 Theaters website or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.