By Stanford Friedman
No, Gluten! is not a jukebox musical featuring the greatest hits of Bread. It’s actually a mildly amusing dystopian comedy that, although uneven, displays just enough humanity to make it likable. Set in a sterile future, city dwellers are so afraid of everything that could possibly come in contact with their bodies, they live a life devoid of touch, eat only the blandest of berries, and go heavy on the hand sanitizer. Indeed, the word “gluten” is never even uttered, but understood to represent all the “common killers of the world.”
Copious (Jaremiah Maestas) and Hibiscus (Shawna Cormier) are a young married couple, or, in the often very funny new age language of playwright Stephen Kaliski, they are “culminating roommates.” Having just moved into their new luxury apartment at a complex called Goldilocks (where everything is just right), they are quite content with their separate bedrooms, beige floor tiles and overhead TV screens. Too afraid to make physical contact with each other, these urbanites do not opt for evenings of silent meditation. Instead, when it comes time to copulate, or, as they say, “coagulate,” frantic self-pleasuring is the order of the day. Yes, there’s a lot of diddling, thankfully all done off stage, but the oft-repeated gag treads a fine line. Kaliski is just a little too amused by the idea of ejaculate in mass quantities. When Copious produces a large jarful for his impressed spouse to utilize, it’s gross out funny. But, a later monologue of “dirty talk” that imagines a torrential downpour of “rain and jizm” fertilizing drought stricken farms, is pretty much just gross.
The first half of the play runs the risk of becoming mere sketch comedy as the couple go about their “100% particle-free, 100% IKEA-free” existence, but Kaliski wisely mixes things up with the unexpected arrival of Copious’ mother, Linda (Maggie Low) and her mysterious companion, Maple (Roger Manix). These suburban dwellers still live a tactile life, enjoying coffee and comingling. Maple has a bit of a God complex and there is a touch of earth mother about Linda, providing new layers of depth to the proceedings as they try to woo the cold Copious and the hardened Hibiscus back to the messy world of emotions.
The cast all hold their own, so to speak. Ms. Low is spot on in her joie de vie. Cormier has the most challenging role and adeptly handles the verbal and physical comedy required of her as well as the see me/feel me/touch me/heal me intensity of interacting with Manix, who radiates warmth. Maestas seems stiff at first (double entendre, be damned), but eventually finds his pacing. Kaliski’s script is a bit top heavy, with a lot of business early on, and not enough time given to the final scene, depriving Maestas of solid closure, leaving Manix with a weak last line and cutting Cormier out altogether. Co-directors Kaliski and Amanda Holston manage the pacing and movement across Jason Sherwood’s minimalist, alley theater set with aplomb, at least until that too much too fast final scene.
By Stephen Kaliski; Directed by Stephen Kaliski and Amanda Holston.
WITH: Shawna Cormier (Hibiscus), Maggie Low (Linda), Jeremiah Maestas (Copious), Roger Manix (Maple), and Josh Tobin (Jerry).
Production Stage Manager: Haejin Han; Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood; Lighting Design: Jessica Greenberg; Sound Design/Original Music: Matt Sherwin; Costume Design: William Mellette. Produced by Adjusted Realists, 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, (212) 279-4200, www.59e59.org. Through Saturday, December 5. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.