Arriving during gay pride month, Jordan Harrison’s new play explores currents of non-heterosexual identity in a nearly comprehensive way. Its characters cover the waterfront in terms of gender fluidity, with side trips to racial and class identity. Allen Moyer’s primary set is an apartment with ceiling-high bookcases and comfortable modern furniture. In spite of the elegance, however, Harrison’s characters might as well be living in the titular log cabin. They are sexual pioneers lost in a wilderness of fluctuating gender identity rather than ferocious animals and untamed nature.
At the center are Ezra (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Chris (Phillip James Brannon), an interracial married couple whose best chums are two lesbians, Pam (Cindy Cheung) and Jules (Dolly Wells). Spanning the years 2012 to 2017, Log Cabin explores the complicated facets of sexual identity that have been bubbling up since the millennium began.
Ezra’s relationship with his stodgy father, a retired dermatologist, affords a glimpse of where the gay characters once were. Every time Ezra tries to speak casually of his homosexuality—he and Chris are married—his father recalls the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Although his father tries to pretend he’s enlightened by remembering his ultimate willingness to treat young men with the mysterious disease, he ends up giving offense: “But finally I said yes. Yes, I would see them. Even if it was some kind of…retribution, for their behaviors.”
Brannon’s Chris is patient and forgiving: “The world is changing too fast for people to understand,” he tells Ezra, but his irritated husband replies, “The world isn’t changing fast enough. Who cares if they understand?” The irony of Harrison’s play, well-directed by Pam MacKinnon, is to show that Ferguson’s prickly, doctrinaire Ezra is out of the loop when it comes to all the nooks and crannies of sexual desire, and he is forced to engage with them.
The voluble Jules (for “Julia”) and Pam—played with monosyllabic dryness by Cheung—have a baby, and it’s a talking point that unsettles Ezra and Chris. The latter wants a child, but the intransigent Ezra refuses to talk about it. Meanwhile, Ezra’s best friend from childhood, Helen, has undergone hormone therapy to become Henry (Ian Harvie).
When Henry shows up with his girlfriend Myna (Talene Monahon) for a cocktail party—the sumptuous apartment belongs to Jules and Pam—both sexual attraction and friction arise as longstanding baggage is unpacked. Henry, Ezra and Chris debate political correctness and oppression, sparked by Henry’s use of “cisgender”—taken from the Latin cis for “the other side of”—for people who are not trans and its closeness to “sissy.” Henry shrugs it off with “homonyms,” but Ezra won’t have it.
“I just don’t see why the trans community gets to call us something that we were scared to get called in middle school,” says Ezra.
“I’ll call you what I want,” Henry replies. “No one’s saying you have to answer.”
But a more serious flare-up comes with the jockeying for victimhood. Henry’s suggestion that Chris has it easier than a white trans man because of his moneyed background and education irks Chris: “How does that help me when I walk into a store and the manager follows me around; when I try to get a cab. I’m a faggot in Harlem and I’m a ‘thug’ in white Brooklyn…. No matter where I am, it’s ‘the other side of.’”
Though the debates are serious, Harrison leavens his script with sometimes unexpected comedy. When Jules checks on her baby, Hartley (Harvie again), she has imaginary conversations with him, but he responds as if he were an adult. After Jules suggests a particular bedtime story, he says, “It’s a little schematic, don’t you think?” And there are traditional one-liners, like “Boxed wine has come a long way.”
But the characters soon find they are trailblazers in this new wilderness. Rifts open between Ezra and Chris; Jules’s relationship with Pam is not all it seems to be; and Henry faces an awkward proposition. Harrison underlies the malaise of the characters with sly comments peppered throughout. At one point, Ezra says of Hartley, “He’s beautiful,” and Pam replies, “Is he? I can’t tell anymore.” Later on, Henry asks Ezra, “Do we even like each other anymore? Sometimes I can’t tell.”
The last scene, between Hartley and another infant, talking about what the future holds, has a quiet, thrilling power. It’s a brilliant capstone to this thoughtful, challenging piece.
Playwrights Horizons’ production of Jordan Harrison’s Log Cabin plays through July 15. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Single tickets are $59–$99 and may be purchased by phone at (212) 279-4200 (noon-8 p.m.); online at phnyc.org; in person at the box office (416 West 42nd St.).