“What country, friends, is this?” says Greg at the beginning of Jeffrey Neuman’s What You Will, now in a world-premiere production at Benchmark Theatre. Greg is rehearsing the role of Viola for an all-male production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Viola, having just landed on an alien shore after a terrible shipwreck, is trying to find her bearings in unknown territory. The characters in Neuman’s play are also traversing strange territory: They’re exploring love and sex, the meaning of short-term affairs and — even more desperately and passionately — the nature of committed relationships. These relationships, according to Neuman’s literate and deeply felt script, can be many things at once: complex, deceptive, lonely, smothering, satisfying, infuriating and — at best — warm and nurturing.
This is a play about brief encounters and also well-worn relationships, the kind in which you know your partner’s habits, preferences and verbal patterns as well as your own, the kind that can be either old-cardigan comfortable or boring as hell. It’s cleanly constructed of interlocking scenes: You see one couple together, then that action spills into a scene involving the second couple.
Greg has lived with Adam, who runs a small wedding-themed printing business, for many years, and the two are suffering ennui and mutual misunderstanding. When Adam encounters a seductive stranger in the steam room of his gym, his fidelity is tested. The relationship of Nick and lively, emotional Celia is in its early stages. The two are engaged, and there’s a lot they don’t know about each other, a lot each is afraid to reveal for fear of rejection. They've moved up their wedding date, and Celia comes to Adam to ask for a rush job on the invitations.
In Twelfth Night, as in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, sexual identity is fluid. Viola dresses as a man to get a job as a page for Duke Orsino; she falls in love with him, but is soon sent on his behalf to court Olivia, who, fooled by Viola’s disguise, promptly falls in love with her. Which means, as Adam points out to Greg, "You’re a man playing a woman who’s playing a man." There’s a whiff of this fluidity in What You Will. Bisexuality is an issue, and there are also moments when you think that the playful understanding between Adam and Celia might turn sexual.
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Under the able direction of Warren Sherrill, all of the characterizations are skilled, but much of the first act struck me as a touch too restrained. It’s clear the relationship between Steven Burge’s Adam and Tom Littman's Greg has become — to use a word that gets emphasized later — tepid, but sometimes their scenes together feel a bit more low-key than necessary. I’d like to have sensed more of the spark that originally brought the two together. And I also could have used more fire and urgency in the interactions between Adam and Nick, played by Casey Andree, in the steam room.
But when Celia appears, the evening shakes itself into life. This is partly because Neuman has written a fascinating character: Celia is the innocent here. She’s about to marry the man she loves, and she exudes joy and excitement, along with that tinge of fear almost everyone feels on the edge of a lifelong commitment. Tellingly, she’s less worried about hidden flaws in Nick than she is that he'll find things about her repellent. That surge of life comes also because Celia is played by Maggy Stacy, who’s a force of nature in herself. She draws focus as easily and unconsciously as a friendly puppy, but can also communicate strong depths of feeling. Her scenes with the equally expressive and generous-spirited Burge are a joy.
By the second act, everyone’s energy level has risen and you find yourself fully absorbed. Is Nick going to hurt Celia? Will Greg be able to forgive Adam? Just who is Nick at the core? You’re likely to find yourself holding your breath and then tearing up at the answers, because the truths Neuman uncovers strike deep.
What You Will, presented by Benchmark Theatre through December 22. 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, benchmarktheatre.com.