Show: “Out of the Blue”
Company: Organic Theater Company
Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)
Die Roll: 1
Is it possible to glimpse into the life of another person and truly, deeply understand their thoughts and actions? By simply listening to others’ stories, can we gain a full sense of their trials and tribulations? Acting as mere witnesses, can we transcend our own circumstances in order to empathize with those who are not like us? These are questions I ponder frequently as a theatre-goer. If the aim of good drama is to intimately connect strangers sitting in the dark with strangers standing onstage, surely more is required than a space, people to walk across that space, and people to watch the walkers do it. Magic can be made from such simple elements, but I still wonder if certain experiences remain untranslatable.
Case in point: “Out of the Blue,” produced by the Organic Theater Company. This U.S. premiere of a script by Russian playwright Vladimir Zaytsev could be known by two titles. In Russia, and in all of the news articles about the play’s controversial run there, the play has been called “All Shades of Blue,” a moniker that carries a different meaning. “Out of the Blue” is an American idiom, and the phrase is spoken in the play by a shocked father upon learning his son is gay. In Russia, the word itself is used as a slang term to describe gay people, while in America, the color could suggest sadness, a beautiful sky, “a bolt from the blue,” or many other possibilities. We as an audience are not prepped by translators Tatyana Khaikin and Robert Duffley to interpret blue in the way that Russian audiences are, and the original author’s melodramatic posturing further pushes away a Western audience that likely already believes LGBTQA people are not possessed by demons and should have the right to love and live how they choose. Perhaps “Out of the Blue” is necessary for Russian audiences, where the play was dogged by bomb threats, protests from a right-wing religious group, and speculation by Putin’s government that it is harmful homosexual propaganda. But Organic’s production does little to justify its existence or illuminate its cultural moment in America, offering several one-note characters, strange scenic transitions, and lots of dramaturgical information in place of compelling dramatic action.
The plot follows predictable beats. A teenage boy (played with pep by Will Burdin) faces the audience and tells a coming out story. We watch him try to date girls in school; his most lasting and unsuccessful relationship scars pop music fan Vika (Amy Powell, demonstrating eight thousand ways to dance to vacuous songs). He has finally decided not to date at all, when he meets Andrey (Adam Zaininger, cocky and entertaining), a jock who coaches him in the art of love, while instructing him to never, ever tell his friends and family that he is gay. The truth slips out, unfortunately, when his parents (Bryan Wakefield and Laura Sturm) announce they are getting a divorce. Plans are made to correct their son’s behavior, but no attempt is successful, leading the father to take drastic, over-the-top action.
The script breezes through its first forty minutes, as Burdin delights in talking about first kisses and confusion with the opposite sex. Once the confession occurs, however, any semblance of story structure vanishes, and the audience is forced to endure the same conversation for two more hours: “How can our son be gay?! What kind of monster is he?! What are we going to do about this problem?!” Sturm in particular tries her best to vary Mama’s concerns and allegiances, but the script and its direction by Alexander Gelman leave little room for surprise. Zaytsev has said in interviews that the play is meant to shine a light on bigotry; those who resemble this boy’s parents are the real monsters. But zealots will not see themselves in the characters onstage. The dialogue lacks any sense of raw emotion and damaging judgment, so the narrative holds absolutely no power over the audience. Likewise, we are meant to empathize with Burdin, but that is easy. He does nothing wrong over the span of three hours, nothing to make us question his choices. He, in fact, makes almost no choices throughout the play. He is acted upon, reacted against, never in control of his own destiny. It is unclear, even, why he tells his parents he is gay, so the Russian press material provided by Organic calling him courageous rings false.
The entire production itself lacks follow-through; the set is an after-thought and the costume design begins and ends with the gay men onstage wearing blue. Gelman fairs no better in directorial concept. There are dream sequences sprinkled throughout the script, where side characters from the boy’s school either accept or reject him, while sharing their own stories. Why are these scenes performed? Gelman gives them no personality or impact on reality. They are theatrical embroidery, and cutting them entirely may have helped the play’s final gut punch, which landed with a wimpy knuckle-rap at the performance I attended.
One might argue that the turmoil of this play — family secrets, coming out, struggling with one’s identity — makes it relatable to an American audience. And if the boy’s story was told in a complex way, if we were given a clue as to whether or not we were watching Russians or American stand-ins, if the words of the play felt remotely real or involving, then theatrical magic might have taken place. We would understand a stranger. There is no more powerful experience than identifying with others, particularly in a play about marginalized people. “Out of the Blue” is not that play.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Russian boy comes out and melodramatic predictability ensues.
DICE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”