Full disclosure: the day I attended the The F Word there were approximately eight people in the audience. It was a Sunday matinee, a hard sell for any theatre during the advent of Spring, and a virtually impossible one for a small company producing a world premiere production by a fledgling unknown playwright. I felt truly awful for the actors, who had no audience reaction from which to feed off.
And yet, despite the morgue-like silence of that day's audience, it was not hard to ascertain that, given a proper full house, the Actor's Theatre of Washington production of The F Word might take off and, while not exactly soar, at least coast, pleasantly enough, above a terrain consisting of equal parts drama and comedy.
The plot is simple and to the point: Mary (Lynn Chavis), a lesbian, and her gay roommate, Eric (Louis Cupp), are trying to have a baby. He's masturbating into syringe-like receptacles and she's shooting ‘em up into her vaginal cavity with the fervency of a heroin addict. Throughout the baby-making process, Eric is having vivid and disturbing dreams of his sister Cindy (Jennifer Phillips), a religious zealot from whom he's been estranged for over a decade. Luckily, Eric does have one sibling to rely on -- an accepting straight brother, Paul (James O. Dunn), who visits Mary and Eric with the kind of alarming frequency that makes you want to shout out, "Hey guy, do you not have a life of your own? "
Mild conflict ensues as Eric informs Paul and Mary of his overwhelming desire to rekindle his relationship with Cindy. Mary and Paul jointly reply that this is not necessarily a good idea. Eric proceeds anyway. Or does he? His interactions with his sister are the play's meat, and in at least one possible lucid dream, Cindy makes a case against reconciliation by exclaiming to Eric, "I can't believe you're going to bring a child into this perversion! "
A real sweetheart, that Cindy, a real God-fearing sweetheart.
Eric and Mary succeed at their sperm-meets-egg quest, and the second act introduces the bawling infant (stunningly realized by sound designer Mark Andus), but not much more. The narrative sputters and stalls. Worse, playwright Beswick's notions of the importance of acceptance by one's blood relations are prosaic at best.
The four-person ensemble is three-quarters flawless. Chavis, once warmed up, gives a natural, graceful performance as Mary. Cupp is engaging as Eric, portraying him as a down-to-earth, light-on-the-neuroses , stereotype-free gay man. And Jennifer Phillips is positively brilliant as Cindy, imbuing her scant onstage appearances with, at first, a potent intensity and later, a deep and abiding warmth. It's a wonderful, complex performance. Only Dunn fails to match his colleagues -- he not only steps on everyone else's lines as though it were his sole mission in life to flatten everything in sight, but his vacant, unconvincing delivery does nothing to help the case for Paul's appearance in the play.
Beswick clearly has a modicum of talent, but hasn't yet achieved command of his craft -- he tries every gimmick in the book, including one out-of-the-blue instance in which a character breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience.
Luckily, the Actor's Theatre of Washington's production breathes life into The F Word, and director Jeff Keenan makes the most out of Beswick's bag of thespian tricks. There are several moments, for instance, in which we're not quite sure if what we're seeing is real or imagined -- and these scenes are staged with a loving finesse and a master's touch by Keenan. They alone allow us to feel as though we're experiencing something richer and more meaningful than what's actually on paper.