An intense sex scene in dim lighting between two male characters who met on Grindr and full frontal nudity make for a shocking opening to Reverberation that was a major talking point at intermission for the world debut of the latest play by Matthew Lopez at the Hartford Stage.
Too racy for the Hartford Stage? For some, maybe. But if that’s all you’re going to judge this show on, you’re missing the poignancy and artfulness of a play that has more layers buried deep beneath mere nudity.
For a play that only has three actors, Reverberation kept me interested the whole time throughout because of the writing, the characters, the acting and the set.
The further into the story we get, the more layers Luke MacFarlane peels away from his character, Jonathan, a single homosexual sympathy card writer grappling with self and loneliness living by himself in a New York City apartment. He was able to bring humor, sadness, vulnerability, strength and likability to Jonathan and a complexity that made him very real. I felt for him as though he was someone I actually knew and wanted to help.
Then enter Claire, his new upstairs neighbor, and everything changes. Aya Cash plays a young, funny, spunky, outgoing, nosy, flighty and free-spirited character who owns very little and is known to pack up and move around the world. Claire is in a lot of ways the exact opposite of Jonathan, namely in how open she is in comparison to his private lifestyle and how well-traveled she in contrast to his seclusion. But the chemistry between them proves strong and she is able to whittle her way into his world and draw him out. The chemistry between Cash and MacFarlane is also very real and connected. They play off each other well with even the smallest moments from their cuddle sessions to Cash singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to get his character to drop the morning paper. They each fill in holes in each other’s lives as each of them long for connection.
Carl Lundstedt seemed to be less polished than the other two actors as Jonathan’s opening scene Grindr hook-up Wes, but what was impressive was his ability to say his lines confidently while completely in the flesh in front of an entire audience. That is something that could easily make an actor break character out of nervousness, but he stayed in character the whole time with ease. Wes, as a man in his 20s, brings a younger perspective that pushes Jonathan to be with the times while at the same time disrupting his solitary life by reminding him of his past. Lundstedt is very good at making the tone of some of their exchanges awkward while showing that his character clearly doesn’t feel awkward.
In the opening scene, Wes remarks on how many books Jonathan has around the apartment, sparking a debate about the Kindle versus reading a physical book. Jonathan loans Wes his favorite book, “Another Country” by James Baldwin, which is theme that reverberates later when Wes returns the book and reads an underlined passage about connection that seems to describe the transformation of Jonathan and Claire’s relationship. Now I really want to read that book and I think Lopez does a good job at representing art and literature in his work in a similar way that one of his other plays, Somewhere (which also was performed at the Hartford Stage) is an ode to West Side Story. Lopez is a former writer for HBO’s “The Newsroom.”
When Wes returns, he revives the conversation about the Kindle and books and is seemingly converted. Meanwhile, Jonathan has been giving the Kindle a shot. A seeming role reversal. Wes also plays a song that reminds him of his last boyfriend Gabriel, who we later find out died. It triggers a very violent reaction that seemed out of character for him that made me wonder how Gabriel really died and whether Jonathan’s sadness comes out of accidental homicidal guilt.
Lundstedt’s and Cash’s only scene together is when Wes is fleeing Jonathan’s apartment after a bloody beating that comes out of nowhere and it’s a shame because I would have liked to see how they’d interact. When Claire talks about “Real Real Boy,” a guy she meets at a department store, I half expected it to be him.
Reverberation is very contemporary, which makes it very relatable. “Shake It Off” just came out last year (can you tell I’m a Taylor Swift fan?!) and there is a reference to “The Interview” on the radio station Jonathan is listening to in one scene. So, the play is very present.
But for Jonathan, a lot of his past echoes, or reverberates, into his present. Later on in the play, Jonathan tells us his version of how Gabriel died and that he used to live in Claire’s apartment with him. Then it becomes clearer why he’s so guarded and vulnerable. Claire almost seems to fill Gabriel’s absence in female form.
The set is two levels with Jonathan’s apartment on the first floor and Claire’s on a platform above his, connected by stairs. Without the fourth wall, we are let into both their worlds simultaneously. The differences in their apartments show their personal contrasts. Claire’s apartment is bare with nothing but a bed, a clothing rack, a small TV and a folding chair. Jonathan’s apartment, however, is very detailed from every item of clothing askew on the floor to his books, “compassionate” paintings and music player. It looks like it could really be someone’s apartment in New York.
Jonathan doesn’t venture into Claire’s apartment, his old apartment, until the final scene. By that point, she’s gone, begging the question of whether she was really ever there at all or a figment of his imagination. He also makes a reference earlier to how he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but that scene makes me wonder if Claire was a projection of Gabriel’s ghost.
There are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the show, but it leaves you thinking about a lot. And that is exactly what good writing and theater does.
Performances run through March 15. There are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday shows at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There is a Wednesday 2 p.m. matinee on March 4.
Tickets start at $25 and you can purchase them by calling the Hartford Stage box office at 860-527-5151 or by visiting www.hartfordstage.org
“Reverberation” by Matthew Lopez is debuting globally at the Hartford Stage. Credit for Photos: Hartford Stage