Review: “Bluff” in San Rafael

Writers have been dressing up the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” trope for centuries now from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to every Hallmark Channel movie. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet took his shot at it twenty years ago with Bluff, running now at The Belrose in San Rafael through November 16.

Sweet, long connected with Chicago theatre, is also an Emmy-nominated soap opera writer and the author of Something Wonderful Right Away, a history of Chicago’s legendary improvisational theatre troupe The Second City. The influence of both is evident in this play.

It begins with an actor (Will Livingston) and an actress (Anya Chernis) hooking up. The fact that they’re hooking up isn’t odd, but the fact that they announce every action they are performing – à la the vocalization of stage directions – is odd and made odder by their direct communication with the audience. This “improv game” approach to the narrative, while original, rapidly wears thin.

Cameron Stuckey, Anya Cherniss

Before the actor (whose name we learn is Neal) and the actress (whose name we never learn) can get much further than the removal of their shirts, an altercation outside Neal’s apartment draws his attention. He breaks up a gay bashing but is then mistaken for a gay basher by a passing woman whose name we learn is Emily (Isabelle Grimm).  It’s a pretty damn dark “meet cute”, and soon the original hookup is out of the scene (literally, much to the actress’s consternation) and Emily is in.  In less than a New York minute, they are cohabitating.

That cohabitation gets complicated fast, as Emily has long-distance issues with her alcoholic mother (Tamara Chandler) and her mother’s husband Gene (Cam Stuckey).  Gene is a traveling dental supply salesman with whom Emily has had a strained relationship for years.  It’s been a relationship full of threats and bluffs (hence the title) that may have finally reached a breaking point.

Co-directors Joey Hoeber and Dianne Harrison have put up a bare-bones production that relies entirely on its cast to find the few nuggets in Sweet’s ultra-meta script and run with them. Stuckey comes off best, first with a very funny riff on Hollywood’s treatment of dentists and then with a darker look at the realities of living with an alcoholic.

Other than its wrapping, there’s not much new in this package and you can see where it’s going long before its 90 intermission-less minutes conclude. Despite good performances, I’m not sure this is a Bluff worth calling.

‘Bluff’ runs Friday & Saturday through Nov. 16 at The Belrose, 1415 Fifth Ave., San Rafael. Friday, 7:30pm; Saturday, 2pm & 7:30pm. $25–$27. 415.654.1957. thebelrose.com.

Photos by Marc Bussin

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the Pacific Sun.

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