|L-R: Brennan Lowery, Molly-Ann Nordin, Jeffrey Brian Adams, and Marlon Meikle in HAPPILY AFTER EVER. Photo by Erik Carter.|
For much of human history, little distinction was made between one’s gender and one’s sex, or between one’s sexual characteristics and one’s sexual orientation, or between one’s biological sexual markers and one’s sexual self-identification. It was simply assumed that what it meant to be male was to have a Y chromosome, to have a penis and testicles, to be physically attracted to and sexually stimulated by women, and to think of oneself as a man. And what it meant to be female was to lack a Y chromosome, to have a vagina and uterus, to be physically attracted to and sexually stimulated by men, and to think of oneself as a woman. And all the parts were thought to go together in neat packages: chromosomes, sex organs, emotional inclinations, and self-identifications. Sure there were tomboys and sissies among us – and occasionally we even came across blatant homosexuals or lesbians - but those were thought to be rare aberrations of little significance.
Not any more. The gay rights movement, culminating in the broad acceptance of same sex marriage, has led, in turn, to the recognition of the extent to which all those parts really don’t necessarily go together, a better understanding of the degree to which one might exhibit male physical sexual characteristics and a female sexual orientation (or vice versa), and the belated realization that we were wrong to have believed that one’s sex (as evidenced by one’s chromosomes and sex organs) and one’s gender (as evidenced by one’s orientation and self-identification) must necessarily coincide. Yes, they usually do – but not nearly as consistently as we once thought.
Indeed, the very idea of there being any such thing as, say, a lesbian trapped in a man’s body was once taken to be nothing more than a sophomoric oxymoronic joke. That is, until today.
It is this revolutionary change in our thinking about sex and gender that lies at the heart of Ricochet Collective’s production of Happily After Ever, a rather quirky impressionistic play by Laura Zlatos currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan. The play’s slight plot revolves around Janet and Darren, newlyweds eager to create a perfect life for themselves and one that must, of course, include a perfect baby. But life throws them a curve when Janet gives birth to a baby with both male and female genitalia. Is it a boy? A girl? Both? And what, if anything, should they do about – or to - it?
Are sex and gender absolutes or are they relativistic concepts: in other words, is one either male or female and that’s all there is to it, or do those concepts really lie on a continuum so that one can be mostly male or mostly female or sort of both? And whether absolute or relative, are sex and gender fixed or are they malleable? Might sex be fixed and gender malleable – or the other way around? The questions never seem to end.
While the play’s primary focus is on these conundrums, the playwright also raises all sorts of other questions of a relative or absolute nature. Are happiness and unhappiness absolutes or are they also relativistic – i.e., are we happy (or unhappy) irrespective of our perceptions of others’ happiness or unhappiness or is our own happiness somehow dependent upon our perception of the happiness (or lack thereof) of others? Schadenfreude, anyone? To that end, we are introduced to Janet and Darren’s next door neighbors, Jerry and Dharma, the perfect couple whose own lives come to represent the standard against which Janet and Darren measure their own.
In directing how the characters in her play should be cast, Ms Zlatos specified that “Janet and Dharma should be played by a woman or someone who is feminine” and that “Darren and Jerry should be played by a man or someone who is masculine.” In fact, in this production, Darren and Jerry are played by two very talented “real” men (Jeffrey Brian Adams and Brennan Lowery, respectively) and Janet is played by an exceptionally exuberant and irrepressible “real” woman (Molly-Ann Nordin).. But Dharma is played by a notorious drag queen (Marlon Meikle) whose over-the-top femininity surpasses that of most “real” women, only serving to underscore the degree to which our perceptions of sex and gender are relativistic rather than absolute.
Nor is it just the concepts of sex and gender that Ms Zlatos contends are more relativistic than absolute. The same thing apparently can be said about the concepts of love and loyalty and most anything else you might imagine. As an example, in response to Janet’s affirmation that she “was not meant to be alone,” Darren’s response is much less reassuring in any absolute sense than one might have expected:
“And now, you never will be. Except when I leave for work every day. Or if I take a really long shit. Or when I need to get the hell away from you, but it’s pretty damn safe to say that I’ll be there for the minimum amount of time it takes to keep you around.”
And when Janet seeks absolute assurance from Darren that
”you’ll love me, right? Forever. And after that even. And again after that”
the best that Darren can come up with is:
“I promise to love you as long as you don’t get fat.”
The only other character in the play is Tommy (Jim Anderson), a runaway, misunderstood family dog who, as it turns out, is really a bitch, Tania. Apparently even the sexual identification of dog can be suspect and relativistic. As played by Mr. Anderson, the droll and downcast Tommy adds further comic relief to an otherwise unusual and entertaining production.