While Chiara Atik’s play Five Times in One Night is a comedy about sex, the term “sex comedy” doesn’t come close to defining it. This isn’t trashy, exploitative, or unsophisticated: it’s thoughtful, funny, and ultimately extremely satisfying. In fact, Five Times in One Night is one of the smartest comedies I’ve ever seen: it’s cleverly and tightly written and nearly every line garners its own audience reaction. Lacy Allen and Drew Lewis have an extraordinary chemistry together in each of the separate roles they play, and RJ Tolan (who previously directed the play at EST Youngblood in New York where he is co-artistic director) has a deft and precise touch.
In five different scenes, going backwards from a post-apocalyptic future through the present day and the middle ages and finally ending at the beginning in the Garden of Eden, the play focuses on the similarities rather than the differences of each age. This is aided by language (I was especially taken with Abelard’s enthusiastic, “Class of 1100! Yeah!”) but also by the actors themselves, who morph into different characters while retaining an essential selfness, a particular presence.
The two actors stay onstage for the entire 90 minutes, engaging in conversations that are alternately (or even, sometimes, simultaneously) tragic and hilarious, uncomfortable and mesmerizing. Each separate play within the play (they’re identifiable only by their numbers) explores another angle of human relationships: the first couple on earth and the last; the uncoupled couple the night before an abortion (“it’s awkward because I want to be with you and you don’t want to be with me”); the couple exploring the edges of BDSM play as their relationship becomes too predictable; and my own favorite medieval couple, Héloïse and Abelard, in a torrid correspondence and beyond.
Between pieces, the actors retire to either side of the stage in minimalist dressing rooms where they change clothing, drink water, and interact with each other—a smile, a nod, a sense of ongoing connection. This staging, along with scenic designer Christopher Ostrom’s creative sets—including a backdrop of shadowboxes that light up for the relevant pieces—makes for an extremely dynamic production: one scarcely has time to catch one’s breath as one is carried forward into the next scene, the next couple, the next relationship.
Allen and Lewis are, quite simply, phenomenal. As they morph into different characters—and in the process trade positions of power—both actors remain engaged and engaging. Their shifting characterizations are very probably challenging, but feel seamless and natural, and they live inside the people they’re playing—even for the very few minutes we have to savor their presence—with understanding and compassion.
There’s definitely time travel here. Most of the music between scenes is by girl bands of the sixties, and the language in the medieval scene owes more to present-day texting than it does to scholasticism; and while the anachronisms keep the audience laughing, one has to think that the playwright and director made them as a deliberate choice: to show the timelessness of relationships joys and troubles.
Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s executive director Christopher Ostrom has a second tremendous success on his hands for this season: a play that is thoughtful, witty, challenging and sure to entertain audiences through the hot days and nights of summer.
Don’t miss it!
Photo Credit: Michael and Suz Karchmer