Review: Martin Sherman’s Passing By at the Tristan Bates Theatre

James Cartright as Simon and Rik Makarem as Toby. Photo  Scott Rylander

James Cartwright as Simon and Rik Makarem as Toby. Photo Scott Rylander

Martin Sherman’s play Passing By was written close to thirty years ago and in many ways it shows. On the other hand, that might not be a bad thing. Set in the summer of 1972, it tells the story of a random meeting in New York, a brief encounter between Simon and Toby that lasts a few weeks and changes their lives. More passage into adulthood than sexual awakening, the play’s strength (and possibly its weakness) is it features a gay relationship while ignoring social attitudes towards homosexuality. Is that realistic for a story set in the early 70s? Does it matter? At times the story comes across as a fairy tale, but that’s the source of its poignancy: gay relationships need their own prince-meeting-prince mythology.

At the same time, production and play felt chaste. Two men kissing and cuddling might have been a world of revolution in the 70s, but in 2013 the relationship needs to be passionate and real. I couldn’t feel the sexual tension, and the two single joined beds in Toby’s studio flat seemed to be an appropriate representation of the relationship. For all the evidence to the contrary, sex didn’t seem part of the equation.

Rik Makarem as Toby started his performance fussy and cute, too cute for my liking. But it gained in strength the more exasperated he appeared. James Cartwright as Simon was unexpectedly hard, elusive even in his most sincere confessions. The two actors find moments of truth and at its best their interaction is defined by playfulness.

The production, as directed by Andrew Keates, started life at the Finborough theatre with a different cast.  Unassuming and low-key, it might be too gentle to make its mark. But it has its own timid charm.

P.S. In an unexpected twist, both characters contract hepatitis. As the play was written several years before the appearance of AIDS, any echoes are unintentional. At the same time, intentionally or not, its innocence, even naivety, become more pronounced.

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