A Strange and Separate People

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"A Strange and Separate People," playwright Jon Marans' follow-up to his superb Harry Hay bio-play "The Temperamentals," doesn't lack for dramatic subject matter: Infidelity, autism, male privilege, religiously observant gay Orthodox Jews, and reparative therapy intended to "cure" homosexuality are all part of it. Unfortunately, Marans hasn't yet managed to tie them securely to fully realized characters. With Jeff Calhoun's overwrought direction in the tiny Studio Theatre only emphasizing the script's penchant for melodrama, this rather odd three-hander, while exuding a tantalizing promise, bumps about awkwardly over the course of 90 intermissionless minutes.

The action's framework is made up of the characters' consuming concern for the strictures and laws of Orthodox Judaism, their religion. The catalyst is Stuart, a 30-something Jewish gastroenterologist who has recently converted despite his intention to continue living as an openly gay man. Stuart befriends Phyllis, a former artist who now runs a catering service and cares for her young autistic son and her demanding husband, Jay, a psychologist who practices reparative therapy. The early scenes are all exposition that feels a bit forced and phony, until Marans drops what I expect is supposed to be a bomb (though I had long guessed it) 30 minutes in, after which it's clear why the exposition felt so off. Spoiler alert: It turns out that Stuart is a former patient of Jay's and that the two men have been conducting an affair, with Jay promising to eventually leave his wife for Stuart. Naturally, Phyllis doesn't take this well, and the rest of the play concerns the trio's struggles to reconcile themselves with each other and their religion.

Marans' central problem is Stuart. We never understand why such an intelligent, contemporary, comfortably out gay man would be drawn to a creed that so forthrightly condemns him. Nor is Stuart's steadily increasing devotion, which Marans too predictably pairs with Jay's growing acceptance of his own sexuality, made to seem anything other than a playwright's heavy-handed manipulation. The most interesting thing we learn about Stuart is that his family, which embraced him when he came out as gay, has stopped speaking to him because of his religious conversion. But that's only there to support the idea that Stuart needs a new family, his religious compatriots, rather than to tell us how a family that would do that might have influenced Stuart's character.

Noah Weisberg plays Stuart with charm and a quiet authority, but he can't make a construct into a full-blooded human being. Jonathan Hammond endows the Brooklyn-born-and-raised Jay with convincing macho airs, and the actor is especially good with Jay's fierce love for his son. Tricia Paoluccio overdoes Phyllis' combative defensiveness up top, but she still gives the evening's most complex performance, possibly because Phyllis is Marans' most interesting and successful character. Even Paoluccio, however, can't quite negotiate Phyllis' too-abrupt move to acceptance and even support for gay Orthodox Jews, which Marans doesn't adequately dramatize, merely chalking it up to "time has passed."

Scenic designer Clint Ramos' clunky realism is unsuited to the minuscule space, with too many pieces that take too much time to cart off or reassemble, though Calhoun's fluid staging manages to keep locations clear. But all that effort just underlines the effort in the writing. The talented Marans clearly wants to investigate how to reinvigorate musty but valued institutions, be it a religion hidebound by its rigid adherence to archaic rules or traditional marriage. He has an interesting idea here, no question, but miles to go before satisfactorily realizing it.

Presented by Stacy Shane and Daryl Roth at the Studio Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. July 19–30. Tue.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Stephanie Klapper.