BWW Reviews: 'CAUGHT' Stirs the Gay Marriage Debate
In the past few years, California has certainly yelled its way to become the central hub for the debate on gay marriage. The state's controversial—and, as of press time, still hotly contested—Proposition 8, which in essence seeks to ban the legality of same-sex marriages, provided the bullhorn for people to take sides throughout the entire nation. Politics, religion and bigotry all come into focus in this war of ideologies, with passionately-charged outcries vying to be heard.
This political tug-of-war is the overarching theme of David L. Ray's stirring new world premiere play CAUGHT, now performing at the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood for an extended engagement through February 13. Set in the months before voting on Prop. 8 happened, this thoughtful, sometimes emotionally-gripping new stage work takes the gay marriage debate and frames it within a melodrama that surrounds an impending wedding between co-habitating Los Angeles couple Kenneth (Corey Brill) and Troy (Will Beinbrink).
A picture-perfect postcard of what gay coupling personifies, Troy and Kenneth are presented as a charming, loving couple, with enough differing personality traits between them that make the two men right for each other: sardonic Troy, an attorney (and apparently an aspiring shock-art artist), is obviously the more outspoken of the two, while gentile exiled Southern boy Kenneth comes across as the sweet, honorable guy you want to take home to meet mom. They make a comfortable living within the carefully-designed walls of their overly earth-toned home.
Officiating the couple's wedding ceremony is their hilarious, close mutual friend Splenda (Micah McCain), an animated busybody of sassy that recently became an ordained minister thanks to the open-minded succinctness of the internet. While understandably mired in the details of preparing for their upcoming nuptials, they get an unexpected surprise: Kenneth's bible-thumping older sister Darlene (Deborah Puette) calls to say she and teen daughter Krystal (the impressive Amanda Kaschak) are on their way to California for a visit. Kenneth panics. It seems his estranged family is about to walk into a situation none of them know about: that Kenneth is not only an out gay man, but that he's also living in sin with his boyfriend, who is about to be his husband. Troy agrees to de-gay their home as much as they can to perpetuate the ruse, but urges his fiancé to come clean with the truth once his sister and niece arrive.
Armed with an internet-connected laptop, Splenda (and, yes, he's named just like the artificial sweetener) digs a bit more on Kenneth's family and discovers that über-devout Christian Darlene belongs to the River Ridge Church, a sect that works actively in "praying away the gay" from the world, as well as in helping abolish the "abomination" of marrying couples of the same gender. Darlene, it turns out, is herself married to that church's minister J.P. (Richard Jenik), who the audience sees intermittently to the side of the stage preaching conservative-leaning sermons to his congregation back in their small township in southeast Georgia.
Though on the surface these soap opera-flavored vignettes will feel like a rehash of previous dysfunctional gay-centric dramas we've seen before (and, actually, we have), CAUGHT—under the admirable direction of Nick DeGruccio—manages to move past the derivative in order to truly triumph as a genuinely riveting, enjoyable piece of living theater. As melodramatic as it all seems, the play handles the conflicts with an engaging sensitivity. The words and actions feel vividly real, from the funny, easy-going exchanges to even the emotional monologues many of the characters slip into on several key moments in the narrative.
This play—unsurprisingly, of course, taking the pro-gay marriage stance—mines most of its dramatic tension from the conflict and havoc that arises between every character once Kenneth's sister arrives, and how the central couple deals with her seemingly irreversible, bible-supported point-of-view. The mother and daughter's extended "vacation" stay in California also provides a slow peeling of every character's hidden layers, which exposes revealing truths, secret lies, and the idea that there is more to the story than what's just bubbling underneath.
Hands down, the play's best aspect is its terrific cast of actors. Brill turns in an emotionally pitch-perfect job as Kenneth, while Beinbrink gives his character a steadfast but likable persona, especially in his adorable scenes with fiery niece-in-law Krystal. Together and in interactions with other separate characters, Brill and Beinbrink are magnetic. Puette is quite excellent, especially in her second act, post-enlightened, wine-fueled transformation that brims with humor and pathos. As Splenda, McCain is incredibly funny, and transcends what could have been the usual one-dimensional sassy gay-next-door character. Instead, his Splenda is infused with a lot of soul, heartfelt humor, and (no pun intended) sweetness. Jenik, as the hypocritical minister J.P., is a riveting actor to watch, delivering each line of dialogue with an intriguing fervor.
And finally, in a wonderful surprise, the show's most splendid, mesmerizing acting comes from its youngest cast member Kaschak, who can easily induce both smiles and tears every time she appears on stage as young teen Krystal. Charming, delightful and sincerely enthralling, Kaschak effortlessly channels that modern day combination of youthful innocence with having a knowing wit that teens today seem to exude naturally, elevating her character to be the play's unexpected voice of reason. Her masterful acting in her monologue about her best friend Marshall elicits the play's most touching, tear-inducing moment. In a room full of adults, Kaschak winningly plays the youngest character in the play with a deep sense of maturity.
While CAUGHT will no doubt be much more moving to those more readily open-minded and willing to accept marriage between two people of the same gender, the play is also shrewdly designed to evoke empathy and understanding from those who may still be on the fence about this issue. The play is just slightly off from perfect, but then again it's hard to erase some of the more expected clichés in a melodrama this traditionally structured. However, thanks to a likable cast of actors and a brisk pace set forth by DeGruccio's direction, CAUGHT does ascend its own devices to ultimately present itself as a touching, emotionally-searing, well-acted play. By the end of CAUGHT, its soap-tinged machinations ease up a bit to allow a shimmer of hope that one day love, acceptance and equality will ultimately win out in the face of bigotry and fear.
Photos from CAUGHT by Michael Lamont. Top: Corey Brill (left) and Will Beinbrink. Trio Set - Top: Amanda Kaschak.
Middle: Richard Jenik & Deborah Puette. Bottom: Micah McCain & Will Beinbrink.
David L. Ray's World Premiere play CAUGHT, presented by Buttermilk Productions in association with Drumfish Productions, continues at the Zephyr Theatre through February 13, 2011, with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.
Tickets are priced $30 and can be reserved online at www.CaughtThePlay.com, by phone at (800) 595-4849 or in person at the Box Office.
The Zephyr Theatre is located at 7456 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.zephyrtheatre.com.