An antagonym is a word with two opposite meanings, such as “left” which can mean “remaining” or “departed.” Rachel Gluck’s world premiere Antagonyms at Curio Theatre Company (“Curio”) centers around four young people who embody the deception and double-meaning intrinsic to that grammar anomaly. As the play begins, we meet Jonny (Andrew Carroll) and Mauve (Colleen Hughes), who are a rather odd couple. Jonny is a recovering alcoholic and artist, while Colleen is an uptight accountant. At a bar, with third wheel Charlotte (Alexandra Spadoni) in tow, they unexpectedly reunite with Mauve’s estranged brother Dorian (Alexander Scott Rioh). Charlotte and Jonny have a tumultuous history of lust and passion, and she has a knack for pushing Jonny dangerously close to the edge. And when Charlotte falls for Dorian, unrequited love rises to the surface and games of power and deception threaten their relationships, as well as their very lives.
Antagonyms takes place in present-day West Philadelphia but feels like an old-school noir film. Director Jack Tamburri elicits a nostalgic feel to the piece. There are dramatic pauses as Jonny takes cigarette breaks in the alley, illuminated by Dom Chacon’s sultry lighting design and sound designer Liz Atkinson’s moody saxophone-centric lounge music layered on top of silence and dialogue. Antagonyms ultimately succeeds because Tamburri and the actors create a believable world with real people inside, even though the dialogue is full of wordplay and droll, poetic verbal spars that may have been ripped from Casablanca. And indeed, they reference Casablanca throughout, a point-of-reference for their ideals of love and perhaps an inspiration of Gluck’s when writing the play.
Paul Kuhn’s set also juxtaposes the contemporary setting; always visible are a seedy saloon, and Charlotte’s brick-wall bedroom full of vintage furniture and tchotschkes. The visual and aural world Tamburri and designers build for Curio’s small black box theatre is remarkable. Gluck writes witty dialogue with a deftness that takes other playwrights several plays to achieve.
The play’s youthful voice with a retro tone crafts a unique vision of West Philadelphia, where Curio resides. Dorian, a transgender man, who is played by trans actor Alexander Scott Rioh, subverts and adds depth to noir film archetypes. The femme fatale Charlotte (a memorable performance by Spadoni) challenges the sexism inherent in that role; Charlotte is accused of playing with hearts despite the fact that she makes her intentions with her lovers quite clear. Even though she does revel in attention of men who can’t control their primal urges, she’s perhaps the most honest character of them all. There is also a funny meta-theatrical moment early on, illuminating the noir genre’s sexism, when Mauve declares “This is the first conversation we’ve had that passes the Bechtel test and all we’ve talked about is shoes!”
In these dark times, theatre like this provides hope for the creative future of the Millennial generation.
Running Time: Two hours, with a 10-minute intermission.