Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Log Cabin

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 25, 2018

Ian Harvie, Dolly Wells, Jesse Tyler Ferguson,
Phillip James Brannon & Cindy Cheung
Photo by Joan Marcus

Log Cabin is so stuffed with ideas, it feels foolish to try to unpack them all here. Jordan Harrison's mostly splendid new comedy at Playwrights Horizons raises questions that raise other questions, and they flow naturally from interesting, compelling characters who manage to be both consistent and surprising. And though the whole thing's over in a little over an hour and a half, you'll probably carry it around in your bones a good deal longer. As in his previous fine effort, Marjorie Prime, Harrison forces us to confront daunting complexities about where the world is headed. In a really entertaining way.

Why Log Cabin? Walking into the Mainstage Theater knowing that gay issues were going to be confronted, I assumed Harrison was referring to Log Cabin Republicans, that mystifying group who evidently value solid bottom lines above basic civil rights. But no, they don't enter into it. What he's alluding to, perhaps, is pioneers—those on the threshold of the new frontier of the 2010s, where, as Ezra (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) puts it, "My whole life it's Smear the Queer and getting slammed into lockers, and then I wake up and I'm Mr. Mainstream Privilege. I didn't see it happening."

He's a one percenter, or pretty near, and so are those closest to him. Ezra's 40ish and married to Chris (Phillip James Brannon), a few years younger and very possibly, as he claims, the only black kid in the Wichita school system growing up. They have a not entirely stable union, shaken up by opposing stands on having a child (Ezra con, Chris pro) and Ezra's way of always having to be right, unnecessarily finish Chris's sentences, and suck up most of the oxygen in the room.

Which is often the well-appointed Brooklyn living room of their best friends, Julia (Dolly Wells), who prefers Jules, and her wife Pam (Cindy Cheung), who enjoys a high-level job at Schwab. The four hang there a lot, sipping good wine and munching trendy hors d'oeuvres, and peeking in on Jules and Pam's young son, who's staying worrisomely pre-verbal beyond the normal age, thus throwing a wrench into this foursome's otherwise perfect existence.

Or is it? More freedom, more choices, more material comforts, and it all seems only to be making these four more miserable. Which applies especially to Ezra, and especially in his dealings with his oldest friend, Henry (Ian Harvie). Decades ago, Henry was Helen, Ezra's prom date. Now, newly transitioned and hypersensitive about it, he's hot to trot, currently dating Myna (Talene Monahon), an artsy twentysomething described in Harrison's script as "very pretty in a Patchouli-scented, Oberlin dropout way." Henry and Myna's awkward inclusion into the chummy quartet turns up the heat on a number of issues: How is the trans community perceived by the rest of the gay community? What prejudices do trans males own, and should they be given a pass on them? Should gay marriage duplicate traditional marriage, or are other, perhaps not-yet-invented marital models worth pursuing?

And: What hazards are created by political correctness? Do the oppressed automatically warrant sympathy, or should they be faulted for overplaying their victimization? In this age of fluid sexuality, how does shifting one's identity affect one's peers? How do the sexually liberated relate to prior generations, like Ezra's well-meaning but unalterably homophobic dad? When couples violate their trust in each other, what's to be done about it?

All right, there's so much on the table that the issues can crowd out the characters at times. And there's one plot twist near the end that defies credibility: Chris wouldn't do that. But we're not bored for a minute. It might all be too much to digest if Harrison's writing weren't so lively and witty: His cultural references are crisp and astute, and he indulges in fantasy sequences too delicious to reveal here, but they add immeasurably to the fun.

He's helped by Pam MacKinnon's spot-on direction, which wrings additional humor out of silences and subtle reactions, and which always throws focus to the right places on Allen Moyer's large rotating set. Russell H. Champa's lighting design is perhaps more elaborate than it has to be, but Leah Gelpe's sound design, which has to carry off some pretty dicey tricks for a small six-person play, does so excellently.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, playing something not that different from what he plays on Modern Family, shows the same crack timing and generosity to fellow cast members. It's hard to single anyone else out in such a tightly woven ensemble, but I was very taken with Cheung, whose Pam has a stillness and gravity that provide a welcome contrast to the tumult around her. She's rewarded with a speech near the end, counseling Ezra on a marital crisis, that's so sensible, clear, and beautifully written, I'd like it tattooed somewhere.

Log Cabin is set from 2012 to 2017, so you just know, don't you, there's going to be a scene set on election night 2016, one that throws a palpable gloom over most of the audience. But Harrison is more forward- than backward-looking, focused, as he was with Marjorie Prime, on how society's evolving and what the appropriate responses might be. He doesn't provide answers, he's too smart for that, but he sure raises intriguing questions. I exited Log Cabin with some of same elation I felt exiting Fifth of July in 1981, in which Lanford Wilson peddled the then-novel notion that a play could have prominent gay characters without being a "gay play," and those characters' identities could extend well beyond their gayness. (Take that, The Boys in the Band!) It's a new world, Harrison's saying, and now that we have new options, we'll have to face up to new responsibilities. Frightening to contemplate, maybe, but everything Log Cabin gives you to chew on is tasty and nourishing. With Playwrights Horizons coming off of, to these eyes at least, a perfectly awful season, it's a pleasure to welcome a real winner into the house.

Log Cabin
Through July 15
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral