Rainbow Theatre Project’s production of Kevin Michael West’s comedy Top and Bottom contains total male nudity—of both the physical and emotional varieties. What begins as a bondage-filled romp between two strangers quickly evolves into something even more vulnerable. It’s a journey that’s funny and cringe-filled, if not entirely free of a few bumps in the road.
Set and properties designer Tony Koehler has transformed the small black box at the DC Arts Center into a credible cheap motel, complete with tiny wall lamps, a landline phone, and—gasp—an actual phone book (we’ll come back to that in a minute). Also on full display at the top of the show are the makings of a wild night—restraints on the bed, ropes on the coffee table, and a gym bag containing, no doubt, untold wonders.
Eventually, James (Ryan Townsend) emerges from the bathroom in leather shorts, a harness, and an eye mask (which he quickly removes in favor of practical prescription glasses). He paces nervously, practicing his dominant top routine in a less-than-convincing tone: “You will call me master or sir. You will be obedient.” After managing to inadvertently smack himself with a riding crop several times, it becomes clear that James may not be the seasoned S&M pro he’s trying to project.
Top and Bottom
closes April 29, 2018
Details and tickets
He’s joined in short order by Tommy (Dimitri Gann), an enthusiastic, if chatty, submissive bottom. Unlike James, he’s clearly done this before—which he’s willing to recount to anyone within earshot, at length. The two begin the awkward dance of getting into master-slave character while getting to know one another—it’s a waltz that’s full of stepping on each other’s toes and mishaps ranging from lost handcuff keys to ill-timed leg cramps.
Under Christopher Janson’s direction, both actors take full advantage of the small stage, as their changes in physical position mirror the shifts in the conversation in terms of who’s in control. Townsend, in particular, shines as the fumbling, nerdy master who’s clearly not entirely comfortable in the role. Gann, as the smug, know-it-all, bossy bottom, feels slightly less genuine, but a monologue he delivers toward the end of the play brings some depth and relatability to his character.
While many of the one-liners and physical gags (pun perhaps intended) are quite funny—a moment when Townsend matter-of-factly suction cups a dildo to the wall elicited a belly laugh from me—the pacing seemed slightly plodding for the kind of screwball comedy the piece warrants. While the play itself comes in at a neat hour or so, I think some tightening up of the action might help keep the manic energy up. I was also left wondering about the time in which the play is set—the aforementioned phonebook, the use of the word “bitching,” and several other anachronisms mixed with references to texting and the twink-ish youthfulness of the characters had me slightly disoriented.
These small imperfections aside, the utter commitment of the actors, the often-hilarious script, and the genuinely awwww-inducing final moments add up to a satisfying experience. And while the full frontal and the campy jokes will have a special appeal to gay male audiences, Top and Bottom’s themes of self-love and acceptance are sure to resonate with a much broader audience.
Top and Bottom written by Kevin Michael West. Directed by Christopher Janson. Featuring: Dmitri Gann and Ryan Townsend. Costume Designer: Greg Stevens. Set/Props: Tony Koehler. Sound Designer: Mark Anduss. Lighting Designer: Artemis Lopez. Production Manager: Angelo Merenda. Stage Manager: Deborah Gur. Assistant Stage Managers: Hannah Herold and Brendan Jackson. Produced by Rainbow Theatre Project. Reviewed by John Bavoso.