Play Cupid is one of the rare Fringe shows that I’m seriously tempted to go see again, which is saying something for a festival this tightly scheduled. I probably won’t get the chance, but I’ll definitely grill my friends who went to see it on other nights about how their show went. That’s because Play Cupid is also one of those rare “audience interaction” shows in which the audience’s input has a significant impact on what happens.
The premise is that Play Cupid is a new dating show where the audience plays matchmaker and decides which of five contestants to send on dates with each other. But this “reality show” is less like The Bachelorette, more like OK Cupid IRL — asking people questions to try to figure out who they are and who they’d match up well with.
It’s presented as sort of a brainy experiment in getting modern love down to a science, with Brett Abelman, also the creator and director of the show, leading the discussion in a white lab coat.
Each contestant tells us something about themselves, and then fields questions from the audience to get a deeper sense of their personalities and interests. Then the audience takes a vote on which couple they want to see go on a date first. And you have to choose carefully, since you might only get to see two pairings by the time the hour-long show (which I wish were longer, but maybe that’s part of the fun) is over. Indeed, I only saw two dates and left without seeing two of the five characters go on any dates at all.
Created and directed by Brett Steven Abelman
Details and tickets
Each of the ten possible pairings has a full, scripted date, and how much of that date you get to see depends on how much longer the audience wants to let it play out. Getting uncomfortable? Getting bored? Think you know where this is going and want to see something else? Raise your hand to debate and vote on whether and why the date should end or continue.
The interactive elements are incredibly engaging, largely because the characters are so well-developed and the subjects at hand so relatable and interesting to debate: what makes relationships work, why people click, what it is that different kinds of people want out of life and how they can get it. In thinking about who would go well together, you have to actively engage with the characters as people — and the superb cast makes it very easy to do that. They’re all great at improv, which means that even though you get a sense of each contestant’s unique personality pretty quickly, you still want to ask more questions just to see how they’ll respond.
The dates have a variety of outcomes, or at least I assume they do. Neither of the pairs I saw ended up getting along very well, but one date still ended with a hookup. I figure there’s gotta be a true-love match in there somewhere! I was also pleased that even though you get a strong sense of who each person is during the Q&A, they can still find ways to surprise you in the date scene. People have tastes and intolerances that you might not expect, or different sides that come out around different people. It’s great writing and character work.
Play Cupid also gets big bonus points for inclusivity; the cast is racially diverse and consists of two men, two women, and one genderqueer person whose preferred pronouns are “they/them,” and you’re not limited to heterosexual pairings. To say too much about the performers or their characters would be a bit of a spoiler, but I have to praise Allyson Harkey’s (Jessie) hot-and-cold charisma, Elizabeth Hansen’s (Kyle) convincing emotional openness, Klenn Harrigan’s (Jakes) comic timing, Kara Turner’s (Brianna) repressed charm, and Niusha Nawab’s (Ali) chip-on-his-shoulder enthusiasm.
Brett Abelman really hit it out of the park with Play Cupid, and personally I’d love to see the show or the concept continue to develop beyond Fringe.
Play Cupid . Created and directed by Brett Abelman . Starring Klenn Harrigan, Kara Turner, Elizabeth Hansen, Niusha Nawab, Allyson Harkey . Devised with the ensemble . Board operator: Justin Herman . Produced by Sonia Zamborsky and Emily Cohen . Reviewed by Emily Crockett.
[Editor’s note: Brett Abelman is a writer for DC Theatre Scene. That fact did not impact this reviewer or her review.]