Top and Bottom— written by Kevin Michael West, directed by Christopher Janson and produced by the Rainbow Theatre Project— is a unique comedy exploring the ways in which people express themselves via the mechanisms of power dynamics in sex. The plot takes place over the course of an evening in which Tommy (Dimitri Gann) and James (Ryan Townsend) rendezvous at a hotel for a sexual romp. The men’s misadventures in exploring their dominant and submissive sides reveals things about themselves which allows a window into the “why” of their current desires.
Townsend, as the lanky James, is thoroughly convincing as a hesitant and nerdy first-time dominant. He is all energy. His nervous tics are apparent to the audience, as well as to his would-be submissive Tommy. Gann, as Tommy, recounts his tales of bottoming to other men as James goes through the tentative— and often hilarious— motions of learning what type of interactions will be pleasing for both of them.
Drawing on the somewhat lighthearted premise, each actor tackles the comedic elements of the play in a way that will appeal to those who are familiar with the kinkier side of sex and those who are not. For those who are on the fence about the subject matter: This play is not really about sex, although sexual activity is present. This is a play about the masks we wear and how we wield power. It is a play about consent. It is a play about healing.
Though Tommy is a man who enjoys being dominated in bed, and identifies as the bottom, the aspects and boundaries of that domination are entirely under his control. He sets the rules for the top. This does, of course, still put him in an especially vulnerable position to be in from a physical perspective. One of the more poignant moments in this play arises from Tommy’s revelation to James about a prior violation of this trust and vulnerability.
Without giving too much away, James responds to this revelation in kind and reveals an event which also frames his desire to explore his dominant side— and why he is struggling so much in his fledgling interaction with Tommy. Both Townsend and Gann are fantastic on stage together and bring a tenderness and understanding to their characters which allows the layers of this complex story to play out, while not being overbearing.
Costume Designer Greg Stevens uses the ridiculousness of the premise to go all-out in showing James’ commitment to his role as the dominant partner in the relationship. Likewise, Tony Koehler nails the “hookup at a cheap hotel” vibe with his drab set and over-the-top prop choices.
We’ve built up such a culture of shame around sexual proclivities that art which addresses this type of material is considered taboo at best. We all have a desire to be accepted for who we are and to connect with other humans. Trying to assess each other as if we’re archetypes in a psychology textbook doesn’t always yield plausible answers. Sometimes people just like what they like.
On the flip side, sex is much like any other method that a person may use to work through their issues or reclaim their power— regardless of which role they choose to play. This production of Top and Bottom explores the gray areas of our sexual psyches that we often ignore. As a comedy with both brains and heart, Top and Bottom is a whole lot of fun— and highly recommended.
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.