In “Phoenix,” a slight and slightly dark romantic comedy with several twists that theoretically should make it feel like a more substantial play, Julia Stiles portrays Sue, an anti-social nurse who in the first scene visits Bruce (James Wirt) to tell him three things: 1. She enjoyed their one-night stand a month earlier. 2. She never wants to see him again. 3. She’s pregnant by him, and is going to have an abortion.
This last piece of information shocks Bruce – because doctors had told him that he was infertile. It also drives the remaining five scenes of “Phoenix,” which – with charm, heavy symbolism (a Phoenix rises from the ashes), and jokes that are sometimes more good-natured than amusing – chronicles Sue and Bruce’s thrust and parry towards a connection with one another.
As befits the rom-com formula, the two characters are mismatched. Sue thinks all relationships are doomed; she has a pessimistic view of the world. The playwright only hints vaguely at why this might be so, a sketchiness that threatens to turn the character into a plot device. Bruce has far more reason to be negative, because of a personal tragedy in his past, but he is ever-hopeful.
When Scott Organ’s play debuted at the Humana Festival in 2010, and opened Off-Broadway shortly afterwards, it didn’t floor the critics, but they appreciated the charisma and chemistry of the (different) two-member casts.
Over her relatively long movie career, the 33-year-old Stiles has had no trouble maintaining chemistry with leading men like Ethan Hawke and Matt Damon. She and Wirt certainly make a good-looking couple, which is oddly emphasized by backdrop artwork that incorporates each of their faces into separate collages that look like the kind of glitzy accessories that would hang in a department store showroom.
The awkwardness of the characters’ encounters seems more than just the kind of uncomfortable conversation that occurs between characters who don’t know each other well. At the outset, the dialogue sounds stilted, the staging is strange, and there is an unnatural, irregular pacing — all this must be chalked up to the director, Jennifer Delia, who is making her Off-Broadway directorial debut. The direction emphasizes some annoying verbal tics of the script, when a more experienced hand might have hurried up the pace to cover them up.
It was only near the end of “Phoenix” when it was possible to warm to the characters, rather than be impressed with the stars. There was a precise point in the performance I saw when the play became more engaging. The audience full of fans and well-wishers gave rousing entrance applause to Stiles and (as if to be polite) to Wirt, and then clapped loudly after each scene. It was clear “Phoenix” was hitting closer to the mark when a scene ended in silence.
By Scott Organ; directed by Jennifer DeLia; sets by Caite Hevner Kemp; costumes by Amit Gajwani; lighting by Rick Carmona; sound by Janie Bullard; scenic design by Burton Machen; stage manager, Rose Riccardi
Cast: Julia Stiles (Sue) and James Wirt (Bruce).
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Phoenix, a production of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is playing at the Cherry Lane Theater through August 23rd.