When a playwright and a theater click, you can feel it. David Zellnik and Defunkt met in 2014 with Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, exploring the AIDS era, disability and Marxism together in a sweet and comedic way. The romance continues with Defunkt's world premiere of The Udmurts at its tiny theater in the back room of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard's Common Grounds cafe.
The coffee line at intermission was buzzing after a startling bit of bloody Udmurtian horse magic just before the break (Udmurtia is a region of Russia, if you were wondering). Then, a perky Southern lady says: "I've just never seen nothing like that before. Two boys kissing! But that's just real life, even if it ain't mine. That's why I love Defunkt." Me too, I think, pleased that someone was confronting internalized homophobia while I was getting turned on. The magic of theater.
It's hard to resist enjoying the lazy seduction of a shining, virginal gay boy by a smooth-talking, trust-fund dude and his fierce, thieving girlfriend. They pass a joint around the pullout couch bed with rainbow afghan in the apartment filled with eclectic treasures, or junk, depending on your eye for Max Ward's set design. Then the seduction turns sinister, to edgeplay with sexual violence and straight-up scams. This play elegantly shifts between vulnerability, violence, arousal and betrayal, raising the question "Who can be trusted?"
Apartment owner Mrs. Huff (Jane Geesman) has a vaguely Russian accent and barbed wire on her windows, being "always pursued by thieves." She's a former actress and last of the Udmurts, pagan redheads whose land was stolen by the USSR for chemical warfare factories. She takes in a renter, Nate (Samson Syharath), who has fled his abusive Florida megachurch family. They bond as she teaches him the myths, language and cheap magic of Udmurtia, until Nate is pulled away by the influence of Clem (Steve Vanderzee) and Rain (Andrea White), spoiled Manhattanites who pick pockets at art galleries and fear the inevitable "Collapse." Russian pawnshop guy Boris (William Wilson) delivers the takeaway: What's rare is precious, and that applies to people, places and things.
Outreach director Matthew Kern greeted the opening-night audience with stars in his eyes and closed with a Champagne toast to Zellnik and Defunkt's 2016-17 season announcement. With Hir by Taylor Mac, Trifles by Susan Glaspell and That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play by Sheila Callaghan, next year's three-punch season swings to dismantle the hetero-patriarchy, distill America's racist history and terminate pro-lifers and rape culture—all with good looks and a sense of humor. Defunkt is a hot date.