Two couples enjoying a weekend getaway—what could be a more familiar summer sight? Prin has fired up the grill, tending the steaks in a wife-beater and swim trunks, crooning an off-key rendition of “Margaritaville.” As Fran snoozes, Con goes shopping, taking advantage of time away from their toddler. Meanwhile, Prin’s girlfriend, Terri, lolls in bed, basking in postcoital glow. It might be any patio in America, except for the participants’ being lesbians. (“Prin,” who’s manning the barbecue, is short for “Princess.”)
Oedipus at Palm Springs is not exactly the first play about gay couples. It is not even the first play about gay couples on a Meaningful Summer Trip—Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! being a noteworthy antecedent. But coming as it does from the downtown collective the Five Lesbian Brothers, the show can’t help but stake out some original terrain. The troupe of writer-performers (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron) became cult favorites in the nineties by using outrageous stagecraft to explode sex and gender stereotypes wherever they might be found, from the unenlightened office (in the bloody farce The Secretaries) to “the dark side of Uranus” (the sci-fi spoof Brides of the Moon). With such a raucous track record behind them, the relative seriousness of the new play, complete with naturalistic performances, may seem an abrupt departure. But its method is no less pointed and timely than the old satiric approach.
Though it doesn’t address hot-button political issues directly, the play takes the snide jokes so popular among late-night comics during last year’s gay-marriage debate—that is, the notion that if homosexuals are so set on making each other miserable, we should let them—and makes the punch line seem petty. Committed couple Fran and Con have been suffering through four years without sex—“lesbian bed death”—since Fran had a baby. Prin, whom if circumstances were different we might call an accomplished swordsman, is preparing to give up her tomcatting ways and exchange rings with long-term love Terri. With sensitive storytelling, the play illustrates how difficult it can be to balance competing desires in relationships—lesbian or otherwise.
Luckily for fans of the troupe’s camp aesthetic, Leigh Silverman’s appealing if sometimes wayward production shows that despite the grown-up tone, the company’s sense of humor remains intact. Credit belongs in no small part to the terrifically funny Kron, whose sex-starved Con pleads with Fran for affection, unloads cringe-inducing therapist-speak in bed (“It feels really rejecting to me,” she says as her lover declines to face her), and finally achieves some peace—for a little while, anyway—thanks to the high-pressure jets in the pool. There’s plenty of nudity here, but none of the lipsticky gloss of, say, The L Word; the implicit point seems to be that these are real women with real bodies grappling with real concerns.
Still, if the Brothers don’t lose their nerve, they do lose their way. Late in the show, a melodramatic discovery puts a serious kink (so to speak) in one of the relationships. You have to admire the guts of making such a bold swerve into high-tragic mode, but the faux-Greek twist doesn’t begin to work, and achieves no resonance. After doing so much careful exploration early in the show, the Five Lesbian Brothers would have been better off, just this once, playing it straight.
Oedipus at Palm Springs
By the Five Lesbian Brothers.
New York Theatre Workshop.
Through August 28.