Alexandra Petri, who writes a humor column for the Washington Post, has here written a sex comedy. By this I mean she has written a play in which people say witty things while, um, having sex. Also, while in the coffee shop talking about having sex. And in each other’s place of residence, getting ready to have sex. And also after having sex.
The two people who say the most witty things and have the most sex are Susan (Rachel Manteuffel), a recent college grad who is working in antiquities, and Lincoln (Matthew Sparacino), an 18-year-old college freshman. We first meet Susan when she and her bestie, Tina (Hazel Lozano) are horrified spectators at their college reunion.
By their conversation, Susan appears to be a bit of a nerd killjoy, who eschews having fun in favor showing off how smart she is. But this is a bit of misdirection on Petri’s part – the only false note in a play which otherwise shows remarkable self-assurance in the writing, the production and the performance. Susan actually likes fun a great deal, as she demonstrates by sitting bemusedly as Lincoln throws his best romantic lines on her, and then pouncing on him with an avidity which leads directly to his dorm room, and from there to the horizontal bop.
Along the way, Petri favors us with a line of bon mots, witticisms and tangents so delightful they will remind you of Charlie Parker improvising on a tune. It reaches its climax, so to speak, when after a disquisition on the poet and novelist Robert Graves Susan concludes that World War I was a “gay war”, unlike the more muscular, masculine Civil War and WWII. The clothes come off shortly afterward.
Of course, these sorts of textual fireworks rarely accompany real amorous passion, in which blood drains from the brain and into more useful parts. And Lincoln is, by several years, more sophisticated than any eighteen-year-old male I ever met. These elements add an air of unreality to The Campsite Rule, and so will require a little more effort on your part than is usually needed to accept the premise. Make that effort. After all, Hamlet wasn’t your ordinary Wittenberg College Junior either, was he?
Susan enjoys the mentoring part of this May-late May relationship, but she is not ready to infer any more meaning from it. And while Lincoln is grateful (kind of a reversal of Ben Franklin’s “In Praise of Older Women”) he’s not sure what else he is. Their stumble toward significance is also the play’s path to meaning.
THE CAMPSITE RULE
Closes August 16, 2014
The Washington Rogues at
2020 Shannon Place, SE
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Wednesday thru Sunday
I’ve seen Manteuffel in several supporting roles over the years, but this is the first time I’ve seen her carry a play on her shoulders, and she does an excellent job. Her Susan is a woman at ease with herself, whether she is quoting Ezra Pound or giving Lincoln instructions in matters of amour. Manteuffel makes the character radiate a good humor which, counterintuitively, makes the play unpredictable. Susan might end up loving Lincoln, or giving him the boot, and smiling at the end either way.
I don’t buy Sparacino as a college freshman, but I do buy him as a man who discovers that the relationship between sex and love is more complicated than he presumed, and that’s the more important sell. His Lincoln is witty but earnest, and you quickly understand that the wit is a mask for the earnestness. The whole subtext for Petri’s play seems to be that we are in a generation which masks its vulnerability with wit (this was also true in the time of Beatrice and Benedick), and Sparacino makes it plain.
Petri uses Tina to make her most significant social commentary, employing the patois of recovery to describe her character’s bizarre and self-destructive choices. Lozano’s quirky delivery – her words tumble over each over like water falling over rocks – is particularly effective for the character Petri has written for her.
Commenters usually praise the set when all else fails, but let me make an exception here. The Campsite Rule succeeds, and Ruthmarie Tenorio’s set does too. In the limited space available at the Anacostia Playhouse, she manages to create a tragically disheveled dorm room, a coffee shop, an indeterminate space on a college campus, and an apartment with a soaring bookcase – all on the same stage. Bravo.
The Campsite Rule by Alexandra Petri . directed by Megan Behm . featuring Rachel Manteuffel, Matthew Sparacino and Hazel Lozano . Set design by Ruthmarie Tenorio . Lghting design by Brian S. Allard . Costume design by Jesse Shipley . Produced by Washington Rogues . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.