Philly Fringe Festival review: “Drunk Enough to Say ‘I Love You’?”

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

At one point during "Drunk Enough to Say ‘I Love You’?", Caryl Churchill’s caustic allegory currently on-stage at the Walking Fish Theater, one character discovers an ability to control the fates of others.  He suddenly declares, "God must have so much fun!"  It’s a surprising, funny moment in an otherwise acrimonious play; the laugh it produces is a shock.  This sort of subversive emotional response has become something of a trademark for the British playwright, best known for 1982’s "Top Girls", and it’s well served in clever production by the new company Butros and Bels Theatrical Emporium. 

Framed as a relationship-long spat between lovers Sam (Will Windsor Erwin) and Guy (Chris Serpentine), the play is makes no attempt to disguise its true intentions.  Sam is described in the program as "a country" and besides an opening prelude that seems to take place at a club in which Sam convinces Guy to leave his family and run away with him, there is little of any of the usual conventions of a relationship tale.  The play is about a relationship, indeed, but not man-to-man; rather, the relationship of a man to his country.

Sam is a forceful, controlling stand-in for the United States and the conversation between the lovers is made up of names, places and events that detail the sordid history of American foreign policy following World War II.  It is a play about the seduction of the American people through patriotic jingoism, fear mongering and intimidation.  Guy is a hesitant but mostly willing stand-in for the American people and when the lovers speak in disjointed catchphrases like a television set flipping through the nightly news explanation isn’t needed.  Churchill smartly relies on what we already know about the history of the last 60 years to make her point. 

In previous productions, Guy has been played by an older, British actor, indicating that the play is to be read as the seduction of Britain by modern American leaders.  Director Ben Smallen, along with dramaturg Nelson Barre, have reinterpreted the piece and the result is refreshing.  Whereas watching an unsure, eager Briton be bullied and seduced by American ambition might come off as didactic and unnecessarily forgiving of the former, this production feels balanced.

Surely that reaction comes from watching the play in America with an American audience, but in this case there’s little other option.  Fortunately, "Drunk Enough…", in its Philadelphia premiere as a part of the Philly Fringe Festival, is smartly realized by Smallen and performers Erwin and Serpentine.  Serpentine does an admirable job of portraying Guy’s misgivings and devotion, while Erwin’s interpretation of Sam’s competing thirst for power and fear of isolation is captivating.  The actors are to be commended, also, for humanizing the disjointed interlocutions that Churchill uses for dialogue.  Very few thoughts are completed and there’s little in the way of conversational through-lines.  This can make for a rather spiritless affair.  It’s to Butros and Bels’ credit, however, that this production maintains a certain vigor and immediacy.  That is, this interpretation of "Drunk Enough to Say ‘I Love You’?" is still largely an intellectual exercise, but one with a heartbeat.

"Drunk Enough to Say ‘I Love You’?" runs September 8th and 9th at the Walking Fish Theater, 2509 Frankford Avenue.  Tickets are $15.

photo credit: Butros and Bels Theatrical Emporium; pictured Will Windsor Erwin, left, and Chris Serpentine

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