Magic Time! ‘I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart’ at Studio X

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Friendships between fat girls and gay boys really are a thing, practically a cliché actually—or a trope, as Playwright Morgan Gould dignifies them when referring to just such a queer pairing in her audacious new play, I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart. You can find commentary and confessions about the familiar phenom online—conjectures, for instance, that fat-girl/gay-boy friendships have appeal because they are not sexually threatening to either party, or because gay boys have taste in fashion that fat girls fancy though it doesn’t fit, or because fat girls offer maternal succor that gay boys long for even as they chase dick. There are googobs of cliches to explain the cliché, in other words.

Tommy Heleringer and Nicole Spiezio. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Gould’s I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart, just opened at Studio X (the adventurous R&D lab at Studio Theatre), features fat girl Sam and gay boy Leo. They met in college and for the last fifteen years have been roommates and best buds. She has a boyfriend who sometimes stays over in her bedroom (and who, we learn gratuitously from Leo, has a crooked cock). We learn nothing of Leo’s sex life except whatever it is happens outside their apartment (because at home, as Sam lets him know she knows, he just jacks off). They’re both would-be writers (though she’s more disciplined and productive than he). And they can each lob witty barbs like duelists at a dart board.

Gould, who herself identifies as fat, seems to want us to like them but not a whole lot. As adeptly performed by Nicole Spiezio and Tommy Heleringer, Sam and Leo run the gamut from fun and games to some truly troubling stuff. Heleringer is adroit at throwing the sort of gay male shade at Sam that could well be called swish-ous. The role seems written for him; it fits like a rubber and he keeps it up with gusto. His antic moves and jokey mugging hijack many a scene. And there’s a shocking surprise twist at the end when we realize how skillfully Spiezio has all along been revealing long-suffering Sam’s mean streak.

The production begins razzmatazz, like a campy floor show in front of a silver mylar rain curtain. Sam and Leo lip-sync the song that is the title of the play. Then the curtain opens on Sam and Leo’s apartment (uncannily realistic in Luciana Stecconi’s set design). As the two begin their badinage, you’d bet this is the comedy love child of Will and Grace and Friends. But Gould (who also directs) has something darker in store.

Gould frames Sam and Leo’s friendship not as an instance of any cliched conjecture but as two people’s authentic response to a not-fake fact: the social stigma on being fat and the social stigma on being gay. In Gould’s clear-eyed view, what bonds Sam and Leo is the mutual support their friendship represents, and she is eloquent on the subject. As she told the gay weekly The Washington Blade:

We know what hate looks like. When I walk in a room, I know immediately which person hates fat people. They don’t have to say a word. You learn that early. And gay men learn who hates them really early too. We find each other like a safe haven, a place where we can be mean and funny together. It’s us against the world.

The hate Sam and Leo face in the world is palpable in the play, like a presumption of intolerance, though the script smartly doesn’t harp on it. What the script does expose glaringly, however, is how that hate internalized and unexamined suffuses their friendship.

They frequently check each other on it. At one point Sam tells Leo (in what is played as a throwaway line), “You’re the world’s worst misogynist.” Moments later she asks him sincerely if something she just said was “homophobic-y.” And Leo teasing Sam for not being very feminist and assertive says, “You’re no Gloria Steinem.” They’re educated and politically aware of the systematic oppression they each face in the world.

Yet there are layers in their lives together of underlying internalized oppression that never surface between them as problematic and ought to. For instance Sam routinely cleans Leo’s room and neither ever queries whether this might be sexist male privilege. Meanwhile Leo routinely and brusquely dry-humps Sam, and once to get her attention grabs her breast, all of which Sam puts up with without protest. Neither ever interrogates whether this might smack of female deference to gay male woman mocking.

So I found a lot to tear apart in I Fucking Wanna Tear You Apart. More than once what was clearly meant as humor made me wince. In particular the character of Leo, while by no means the world’s worst misogynist (that title now belongs to POTUS), poses a dramaturgical threat to Gould’s undertaking. As written and as performed, Leo embodies stereotypical gay male indifference to women’s body integrity like a spot-on cartoon. Leo knows better than to fat-shame Sam, but he clearly takes out his internalized femiphobia on her, because he’s a man and he can. As a consequence Sam’s desperate I’m-nothing-without-you devotion to him becomes pathetic. Not exactly the self-respect you’d expect in a heroine fat grrrl.

Nicole Spiezio (Samantha) and Tommy Heleringer (Leo). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

I believed and admired Gould’s framing of Sam and Leo’s outlier friendship as an essential mutual support system in a hostile environment. She got that deep and true and right. But I did not trust that she was accurately tracking how that environment had contaminated them.

Not until, that is, Gould introduced a third character.

Chloe is a coworker of Leo’s whom he befriends and brings home to meet Sam. He fully expects Sam to like Chloe and welcome her. As the three sit side-by-side on the sofa, Leo in the middle gleefully exclaims, “My work wife and my home wife!” Anna O’Donoghue brings to the role of Chloe such a pert simplicity and ebullience that we along with Leo fall in like with her immediately. But Sam does not. Chloe is thin, and Sam feels threatened by Leo’s friendship with her. Sam believes it to be a betrayal: fraternizing with the enemy hegemony. And Sam sets out to tear them apart.

As plotting this is brilliant and as played it gets riveting. Gould lets us see Sam’s female self-loathing lash out at an utter innocent, a women whom Sam can revile with all the scorn that has been dumped on her. It is chilling how daringly Gould now takes Sam to the dark side of outside oppression when it dwells within.

Gould doesn’t take the same insightful scalpel to Leo, however. And that may well be because the play’s origins were autobiographical. Sam in a sense is Gould’s alter ego. Dear friendships with two gay men inspired her to put the fat-girl/gay-boy trope on stage. That Gould eviscerates Sam but lets Leo off the hook may well be a gesture of friendly discretion. But theater, I think, insists on more ruthless truth-telling.

Codependency is a trope with mind-blowing dramatic potential, as Ford’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reminds us. George and Martha cannot live without each other, nor can they with. Albee saw into their poisoned souls and knew exactly what made them sick. Heaping their self-hatred on stage in all honesty, Albee makes us laugh in gut bursts and tremble in sorrow and pity.

I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart shows every bit as much promise as Edward Albee’s early work, arguably more. That Morgan Gould can be mentioned in the penumbra of this playwriting giant is a tribute to her voice, craft, and conscience. Gould has braved stigma both outside and inside the theater world to tell the tragicomic story of Sam and Leo’s codependency. Gould truthfully references the real world as she makes a world of respite real on stage, and that counts. That matters.

Studio is to be applauded for taking a chance on this play and giving it a first-rate production. That I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart is incomplete and still unfinished only makes it all the more a fascinating and important theatrical find.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart plays through February 19, 2017, at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

LINK:
‘I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart’ at The Studio Theatre reviewed by Jane Franklin

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