A heterosexual documentary film duo convinces married couples to file for divorce, in the name of gay marriage, and then films them during the year they live apart. Sound obnoxious? Well, yeah. The wonderful feat performed by Purple Rep’s The Unmarrying Project lies in its ability to take unlikable protagonists engaged in a useless political exercise, and still tell a savvy story. Written by Larry Kunofsky and directed by Rachel Eckerling, The Unmarrying Project boasts an ensemble cast so stellar, choosing standouts is impossible. As the filmmakers who instigate the project, Nic Grelli and Jolly Abraham nail the part of documentarians proud of their quirk, ambitious in their goals, and overconfident in their political potency.
The rest of the ensemble members each play a wide variety of roles with specificity and grace -- and they are a delightfully diverse bunch of characters. An elderly Westchester couple, modern orthodox Jews, a lesbian couple, a gay male couple, all happily married, as well as a straight couple married but perhaps less happily so, each agree to participate in the project. Conceived as an act of civil disobedience, the plan is for the couples to file for divorce and live apart for a year (the amount of time New York state requires to grant divorce) as an act of protest: if gay couples can’t marry, these couples will dissolve their own marriages!
Perhaps the most politically salient aspect of the play comes from how little its exploration of gay marriage deals with, well, gays. Marriage is marriage, as evidenced by the devastating fallout which inevitably accompanies the voluntary separation of people who love one another. The play nods at more radical ideas of romantic unions by briefly questioning the utility of monogamy (as well as by depicting the horrifying codependency with which each pair of characters is plagued) but the bulk of the play’s energy is devoted to examining coupledom.
Watching the dissolution of loving and committed relationships, however misguided the experiment, is, by turns, laugh out loud funny and heart achingly poignant. As a playwright, Kunofsky has a great ear for dialogue and authenticity as he gives voice to a diverse group of characters. To director Eckerling’s credit, the text is never didactic, and even plotlines with the most foreseeable outcomes maintain a sense of urgency.
If the play is to have a life beyond Purple Rep – and it should – Kunofsky will have to shave some time off of the two and a half hour length. Still, as an inaugural production for this new theater company, dedicated to running two productions in repertory, The Unmarried Project marks the Purple Rep as an emerging group to watch for smart, exuberant theater.
The Unmarrying Project runs in rotating rep with Mariah MacCarthy’s The All American Gender Cabaret. To get the supertext of the two productions, billed together as Gay Plays for Straight People, catch that one, too. This play about couples is, itself, coupled.