by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Washington Stage Guild starts off its 29th season with a smart production of David Marshall Grant’s Pen, a curious play that is by turns provocative and perplexing. The company’s tagline, aptly, is “Smart theatre for a smart town.” Pen‘s dramatis personae are brainy alright. But much as I admired the sharp writing, excellent performances, astute direction, and quality of stagecraft arts on display, at intermission I was scratching my head about what had just happened. By the end I was left wondering if I was perhaps not smart enough to figure out where the play went and how it got there. In the midst of what is ostensibly a naturalistic family drama, there are some surreal twists that just made me go “huh?” That said, this production is a thoroughly engrossing theater experience.

At the center of the family drama, set in 1969, is Matt Bayer, a senior in high school whose psychologist father divorced his mother after she became wheelchair-bound with MS. The hapless but hopeful Matt (in an exceptionally insightful performance by Chris Stinson) lives with his demanding and difficult mother, Helen. He’s torn between the caretaking he feels he owes her and his need to move out and go away to college. Helen, for her part, is abusively clingy, and her brief interludes of maternal concern keep their dynamic cycling between sentimental affection and cynical rejection. Poor Matt—he wants to get as far away from her as possible and she won’t even let him go to the movies. How he has survived their dreadful mother-son dynamic this long is a mystery. (I’m tempted to observe that this trope is not uncommon in works by gay male writers…but I won’t. I’ll just say it’s a vivid depiction of codependence to the enth.)

Emily Townley plays Helen Bayer with engaging range—and if like me you find her character unbearable at first (picture Jo Anne Worley as Mommie Dearest), hanger in there. Over the course of the play Townley reveals touching dimensions of Helen that are as sensitive as they are surprising.

Initially I found the character of the father, Jerry Bayer, appallingly lacking in a self-awareness for a shrink. He’s dumped his disabled wife and is about to marry a young blonde. What’s not to dislike? Equally remarkable, however, is Michael Russotto’s amazingly aware performance in the role. So compelling is he that he nearly had me believing the character might be a nice guy with good intentions. And in a scene in Act Two in a bar where he plays pickup artist, his charm is completely convincing.

Director Kasi Campbell has found just the right balance among these characters, which is no mean feat. We need to care about what happens to them all. At the beginning I cared only about the put-upon son (and Stinson’s deeply intuitive performance is so arresting and satisfying, he’s one of those actors you miss when there’s a scene without them). Campbell, Townley, and Russotto, however, make sure all sides of the troubled triangle solidly sustain the show.

Set Designer Shirong Gu and Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows picture an appealingly moderne living room as well as effective suggestions of a restaurant and bar. Sound Designer Robert Pike offers enjoyable music tracks from the era, and Costume Designer Sydney Moore portrays the period simply and without cliche.

The title refers to a prop pen, a red one, that functions in the play in two ways. On the one hand, it’s an ordinary writing instrument (a particular model Helen prefers because she can do crossword puzzles lying on her back and the ink cartridge doesn’t need shaking). On the other hand, its point is to prompt the play’s Twiglight Zone-y twists. I never figured out what one the hand had to do with the other. But Washington Stage Guild has handled the requisite ambidextrousness handily, and its Pen points most promisingly to its 2014–15 “Season of Love and/or Marriage.”

Gotta hand it to them for that.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

Pen plays at plays through November 23 at the Undercroft Theatre of  Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 240-582-0050 or visit the Washington Stage Guild website.