When it was first announced that a cast including Kathleen Turner and Deborah Cox would be performing in an Off-Broadway play about a woman in a lesbian relationship who is secretly transgender, it made the news.
What was unusual was not the subject matter. The “T” in “LGBT” is finally getting much attention on both stage and screen, as I enumerated in my review of Sommerfugl, a recent play in New York about the person who underwent one of the first publicly acknowledged transgender surgeries, way back in 1930. (That true story is also the basis for a forthcoming movie, The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne.)
What was intriguing was that such big stars would be in a small Off-Broadway play by a little-known playwright named John S. Anastasi.
Soon, Cox dropped out, and with less than a month before opening, so did the director, but Kathleen Turner not only stayed in the cast – she opted to direct the show.
Now that Would You Still Love Me If… has opened at New World Stages, the decision by Turner, a Tony- and Oscar- nominated actress, to invest her time and talents in this unskilled play is baffling. Would You Still Love Me If… is decently directed, professionally performed and certainly well-intentioned. But Anastasi’s script, while earnest and enlightened, is so flawed as a drama that it would be put to better use as reading material for a transgender friend and family support group.
Danya, a lawyer (Sofia Jean Gomez), and Addison, a writer (Rebecca Brooksher), have been a couple for two years. Although both are just 28, neither can have a child, so they have talked about adopting. In the first scene, Addison springs a surprise on Danya – she happened to meet a pregnant teenager, who is willing to give her baby up to them for adoption. Addison has spent the last few months making all the proper preparations (“background checks, health records, family history”) to make the adoption a reality, without telling Danya. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Danya asks, annoyed. It’s a good question, but, coming from Danya, an ironic one. Danya too has kept something from her partner, and not for months; for years. She always felt that she should have been born a male, and she recently has been seeing a doctor (Roya Shanks) who performs the surgery to become one physically.
Let’s accept as psychologically feasible that Danya has taken steps towards transition without being able to share her secret with the most important person in her life. But what would have made Addison keep the adoption a secret? It soon becomes evident that there is virtually nothing in their relationship that rings true. To pick a detail in that same scene: As something of an apology for the distant way she’s been behaving towards Addison lately, Danya says: “When I’m with you I’m a much better me. Better lawyer, lover, friend. But I have issues” – and then she gives some examples:
“I watch QVC all the time but never buy one single thing. I feel like I always have to run the things I do in my life by my mother, even at 28. I believe in God but I only pray when I need something. But my issues, your issues, none of it matters because we were born to be together. I’ve known it since day one. That’s why neither of us has had anyone in our lives until we met.”
It’s surely meant to be a charming glimpse into Danya’s personality, and a sigh-worthy declaration of love. But why would Danya need to tell Addison about her QVC-watching habits? Wouldn’t Allison already know about them? Wouldn’t she know about all these “issues”? Isn’t this the sort of speech you would say to a date on day one (or maybe as late as day 10), rather than to a lover with whom you’ve been living for two years?
The truth is, Danya is speaking this way not for Addison’s sake but for the audience’s. And this is just about the least annoying passage in the whole play.
The dialogue in Would You Still Love Me If… is generally so inept — everything is spelled out so blatantly, and woodenly — that it’s nearly an insult to the audience’s intelligence.
The one advantage of this approach is that it is an efficient way of informing us about transgender issues. So, in conversation with her doctor:
Doctor: Your problem didn’t occur yesterday. Why the wait?
Danya: I’m not your oldest patient. You told me you’ve seen patients for the first time at fifty and sixty. Why did they wait?
Doctor: Lack of support, wanting to give birth, financial issues, danger of physical abuse and in some cases, bad experiences with the gender they seek to be.
Danya: I think for me it was fear of the unknown. Not being accepted. And afraid that I might still be unhappy….
Kathleen Turner plays Danya’s mother Victoria. The first time we see her (about half an hour into this 90-minute play), she and Danya are in a public park, where Danya finally reveals her plan to have the transgender surgery. Later, Victoria tells Addison about the forthcoming surgery and thus sets off what passes as the plot of the play, which takes place clumsily over the next six years. But in that first scene in the park, Victoria takes the news relatively well: “Hard part is I have to mourn the loss of my daughter before I can welcome my son.”
Hard part for the audience is we have to mourn the waste of a gifted artist.
Would You Still Love Me If… is on stage at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street, New York, NY 10019 between 8th and 9th Avenues) through October 26. Tickets and details