Bi Bi Love

Seventh Sense Productions

at National Pastime Theater

By Carol Burbank

The two greatest curses of contemporary theater are the Secret Drama and the Sitcom Play. Some very accomplished playwrights with urgent stories to tell, like Sam Shepard and Neil Simon, have made these genres work, and now students practice them in playwriting classes and workshops. They’ve become theater’s main formulas. And heaven help us, now the genres are blurring together to create a new form–the Secret Sitcom Play. It combines the Secret Drama’s predictable hidden story, which disrupts the carefully constructed community-in-dramatic-denial, with the jovial rompings of the Sitcom Play, in which a perkily dysfunctional community has all the reality of the domestic comedies aired nightly on TV. Karl J.B. Sundstrom’s Bi Bi Love is one of these confusing hybrids, trying to confront social issues at the same time it aims for the audience’s funny bone.

Sarah is a bisexual forced to choose between her live-in boyfriend, James, and her ex-lover Veronica’s passionate ghost, who has materialized in seductive tangibility. Friends, neighbors, and family members cluster around this lover’s triangle, symbolizing the many different cultural and sexual choices of the 90s. They all want Sarah to tell her clueless but benign boyfriend about her past relationship, not realizing that she has another deeper (but not much deeper) secret. Until Veronica’s ghost begins to terrorize James and faces exorcism by a drunken priest, Sarah refuses to confront her inmost truth–that she needs to be alone with herself before she can make any partnership work.

In Sundstrom’s vision, the confrontation with this wispy secret represents a profound moment of healing. Once Sarah confesses it, the ghost goes into the light, the boyfriend goes into the night, and Sarah is left smiling, bringing a madcap series of confrontations, which never quite congealed into comedy or drama, to an unlikely resolution. The friends mill around lazily, pushed to react only by the intrusion of characters Sundstrom must have imagined to be comic relief: Brian Hamill’s clumsy, brutal Irish Catholic priest, Toni Quilico’s intelligent but uncharismatic portrayal of the neighborhood psychic, and James’s moronic homophobic brother, played by Sundstrom himself. Only Robyn Unell’s ghost has any energy, and the play’s leaden pacing dulls her attempts to spark the story into life.

The script is sometimes confusing, full of unexamined relationships and issues. An independent director might have given the production enough energy to raise a few chuckles, but Sundstrom has acted as writer, director, performer, producer, publicity manager, painter, and sound designer. Without adequate support, he’s failed to address the story’s main difficulty: its muddy mess of sexual politics. The bovine homophobic brother and the diverse community of friends would suggest that Sundstrom toes the liberal line: to each her own. But the title of the play, the rivalry between James and Veronica, and the stereotyped characters mirror actual tensions in the bisexual community, whose members are often pushed to choose one sex or the other–tensions that are ignored in the playwright’s and performers’ attempts at comedy.

The play’s moment of crisis brings out this tension, though it’s confusing because the conflict is only vaguely acknowledged. When Sarah confesses to James her true relationship with Veronica, he’s ostensibly outraged only by her lies to him. But since before this point the gay, straight, and bisexual characters have mixed in harmony, his immediate breakup with Sarah seems unmotivated and overblown–even considering the goofy haunting he’s just endured. Does James have a hidden homophobia or a risque past, indicated by his trendy earrings? We never know because he walks out in a quiet huff, declaring his undying love as he announces his final departure. At the center of this play’s muddled ideas about heroic tolerance–epitomized by James’s stalwart defense of Sarah’s gay friends despite his brother’s disapproval–is Sundstrom’s argument that honesty and acceptance are the paths to community. But the story he presents depends for its comedy and drama on stereotypical characters whose predictable comic behavior is not only self-perpetuating but intolerant. And the play’s wishy-washy liberal individualism makes these stereotyped actions seem the fault of the individual, not the consequence of an intolerant culture.

The priest, the psychic, and the brother are all presented as wacky cultural outcasts who disturb the yuppie balance of the closed circle of friends in Sarah’s living room. Sundstrom doesn’t expect us to be tolerant of their eccentricities–they are simply strange. Any cultural pressures, whether radical or conservative, not embodied in this circle are delegitimized; the characters outside the circle are scarecrows, which allows us to avoid thinking in depth about the problems faced by tolerant people in an intolerant society. Nor are we ever encouraged to examine the reasons for the prejudices that disturb us. And this casual manipulation of conservative burlesques hobbles both the comedy and the drama.

Sundstrom’s tolerant characters are no less stereotypical. Veronica’s claims of sexual prowess are a kind of declaration of dyke machismo, unexamined and presented to the audience for titillation. Sarah’s passion for her ghostly lover has a generic blandness, which softens Veronica’s attempts to reconvert Sarah and obscures the ways Veronica genuinely reflects the lesbian community’s marginalization and distrust of bisexuality. Allowing issues like this to remain in the subtext, unexamined, helps the formulaic comedy limp along, but it undercuts the audience’s pleasure and faith in the characters. Sarah’s straight friends are stereotypical slobs and sports fans, her gay friends are bitchy queens, and she herself is limited to two states, angst and calm. Liberal tolerance in Sundstrom’s formula seems more a state of denial than a blissful community.

It’s the Secret Sitcom Play Syndrome. In search of the easy laugh, Sundstrom has converted complicated issues of social and cultural identity into bland, easily recognized characters and oversimplified resolutions. But few people were laughing on opening night. Given the play’s confusing mix of secrets and stereotypes, the characters here seem merely flickering figures on a half-watched television show that never comes into focus.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of two women in Bi Bi Love, by Ed Schultz.