Time is anything but “straight and narrow” In fact, if you’ve been paying attention lately, the general consensus is that time is a flat circle. I’d venture to say, and I think the Mad Ones’ production of The Essential Straight and Narrow will agree with me, that time is even messier than that. We re-visit our memories, our regrets, our fears, our dreams throughout the course of our lives and repeat many of the same choices and mistakes. Our minds can be anywhere but present in our moment and we are led astray several times even throughout the course of a single day.

In The Essential Straight and Narrow, we first come across Jo (Stephanie Wright Thompson) in an unflattering hotel room. It’s the 1970′s– the wood paneled walls, the high-waisted flare jeans, and the blow-curled hair are nostalgic indicators. Jo is having a heated conversation with a man on the hotel phone, but just when her conversation ends, she begins again, repeating the lines and gestures. We realize she’s rehearsing a script– a conventional cop drama about two detectives who fall in love while working a case. She repeats the scene, making notes in her script and uncomfortably trying different approaches to her lines. Then, the fluorescent lights switch into dimmer reds and we’re in Jo’s memories. Here, Jo is a folk singer and her band-mates, a burly Graham (Joe Curnutte) and a mild-mannered Paul (Michael Dalto), visit her hotel room to practice for an upcoming band tour in the Southwest. Graham has newly returned to the group after splitting up with Jo, and his restored presence causes quite a lot of discomfort in the band’s artistic process and their music line-up. Even though we never actually see the break-up enacted or explained, the excellent script by the ensemble and the direction under Lila Neugebauer plays out its echoes so well that we hardly ever feel its absence. In fact, I felt like I was seeing a repetition of what drove them apart, even though time has certainly elapsed since their breakup.

(l-r) Thompson, Curnette, Bovino, and Dalto
(l-r) Thompson, Curnette, Bovino, and Dalto

The rest of the play alternates between rehearsal scenes and memories. I wasn’t exactly sure what was the relationship between the two parallel depictions. Sometimes it seems like certain moments (the ringing of a phone, a particular line in the cop-drama script) trigger Jo’s memories, and at others the switches come more abruptly. Soon the two worlds bleed into each other  and we learn a bit more about what might have made Jo turn away from her music career.  The play masterly structures its story to create suspense, excitement, and power.  There were two distinct moments in the play where I jumped up in my seat out of surprise, and several more where I felt extremely moved. As much as Straight and Narrow is intelligent and playful in design, it is also wonderfully genuine and insightful about how we treat our relationships, our mistakes, and our cultural moments.

Each member of this ensemble contributes to this playful yet powerful fluid movement. I was a little puzzled by the choice to make the role of Debbie transgender (played by Marc Bovino).  The character is certainly fun and hilarious, but I torn between the idea of laughing with her or laughing at her, since a lot of times it seemed like her comedy was based solely on the fact that she is a man in a dress with a high-pitched, girly voice. Taylor Mac criticized comedy shows (particularly sketch comedies like SNL) on Facebook some time ago, saying that many sketches featuring transgender or homosexual characters relied solely on the fact that these people were trans or gay to produce humor, therefore sending the message that trans and gay people are inherently silly, ridiculous, or abnormal. While Debbie is a much more thoughtful and genuine character than the parodies Mac points to, there were a few points in the play where I felt myself and audience laughing solely at Debbie’s “non-normative” behavior. I would love to hear more about the group’s decision to cast Bovino as Debbie, as well as from anyone who’d like to share thoughts about how transgender characters can be portrayed both sensitively and comedically at the same time.

The Essential Straight and Narrow plays at the New Ohio Theater through June 14. Go see! Highly recommended! And all that other stuff!