The Straights exists in an American everywhere/nowhere, and it’s about both a handful of specific people and an American generation. It’s a play of a road trip, taken by Nina and Phoebe to visit Phoebe’s ex, but we never know, geographically, where they start or end. Despite the constant video backdrop (Tyler Isaacson’s designs are the main feature of the play’s physical environment), we never know more about where Nina and Phoebe are than the relative creepiness of the religious billboards they pass and the names of some detours (for the best egg salad sandwich in the country, for example). It’s a play where some of the characters went to school together/grew up together, but appear now to be at very different stages of adulthood or even to exist in entirely different spheres. The cast is carefully delineated to draw from a spectrum of races/ethnicities/genders/sexualities; as an opening note in T. Adamson’s script says, “A cast where more than three of the actors are Caucasian should be considered unworkable.”
The tone here is incredibly tricky–arch and stylized, but not so much as to become mockery; specifics blunted, but not so archetypal as to become overblown; all of it a thin skin over an emotional abyss. It doesn’t always work, but Adamson and director Will Detlefsen get it right more often than not. There are times when Nina (Mary Glen Fredrick), glued to her phone, posting a constant stream of selfies, hashtags, butt shots, and Instas while dictating emoji-filled emails to an insubordinate employee, feels like too much of a caricature to ever become a character: too stylized, too much the apotheosis of terrible stereotypes about self-absorbed millennials and digital culture, too ridiculous with her meme-speak and pink hair and ironic-but-not-really references to herself as a #ladyboss. (It becomes clear, though, that all of this is a chosen affect, and Fredrick nails it; her Nina knows when she’s approaching self-parody and lives in that space without ever denying the genuine emotions underneath or the complexity of living simultaneously in the physical and the digital worlds.) There are times, in fact, when all the characters threaten to collapse into stereotype: Phoebe (Jennifer Paredes), Nina’s sidekick and road-trip partner, a muddle of blurred boundaries and damaged relationship choices; her co-dependence with Nina is part crush, part BFF, part unformed sense of self. Ari (Neo Cihi, chipper and determined), the runaway trans teenager who they pick up hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere, and who may become the new target of Phoebe’s emotions. Teri (Lisa Ramirez), the #OkBoomer older woman, whom they also pick up, not exactly hitchhiking but abandoned after a series of rash decisions. (Ramirez gives a bravura performance as the character who could easily be the cliche that all the characters are hoping to avoid becoming; she’s intensely self-absorbed and doesn’t really understand what the kids are into these days, but she retains a generosity of spirit that keeps her going.) Clare (William Thomas Hodgson), Phoebe’s ex, a competent man who’s moved on to “adulthood” more convincingly than Phoebe, with a “sold out to the man” job and a house and a partner and child, and who knows how to repair things. Mexico (Emily Shain), Clare’s decidedly not-Latinx hippie partner, who tells earnest and terrifying fairy tales about climate change. Pearl (Cat Crowley), a diner waitress who’s never been anywhere.
But such wells of loss, grief, and terror underlie the entire thing that somehow it holds together, and though individual moments can tip over into either pretentiousness or an overdose of self-reflexive irony, and the play as a whole could stand to be twenty minutes shorter, the pain feels real: specific and devastating losses for Clare, Mexico, Phoebe, even Teri; Ari’s rebuilding and remaking of their entire life; Nina’s existential loneliness; and an overall melancholic isolation that could describe generations, nations, or the mediated age we live in. (The only character who never really worked for me was Hombre, played by Tony Castellanos, a sinister creep who freaks out Ari at a motel vending machine, then becomes a bad boyfriend to Teri and, at the end, Mexico’s feckless father. The circularity felt like neatness for the sake of it; the running theme of a menacing generation gap could have worked just as well without these three being actually the same person.)
These are characters who don’t know how to find their way in a world that’s falling apart; they end up being vicious to one another because they don’t know how to be anything else. They’re desperate for connection and completely unable to navigate an honest way of achieving it. Even Clare and Mexico, who seem to have the play’s most functional (by some definition of functional) relationship, are bound as much by the terrible things they’ve experienced together as by any more positive emotion, and by their desire to control what few elements of the world they can control.
The play is bookended by Phoebe leaving home and driving back home; despite all the people she travels with, she returns alone. Phoebe says, at one point, “I don’t think I care anymore cuz nobody in my life’s ever okay. And I’m always okay.” She’s not, really, according to Nina or Clare, anyway, but she doesn’t know how else to situate her continued existence. Ari wonders, “Was [Teri] ever like we are?” and the answer of course is yes. Maybe still is. The Straights is often a very funny play, line by line and scene by scene, but its world and its people are broken, and just trying to get by.