In the opening scene of Phoenix, a young woman reuniting with the man with whom she had a one-night stand a month earlier announces that she has three things to say to him. Anyone who’s ever dated immediately knows that things are not going to turn out well. And so it goes in Scott Organ’s two-hander romantic comedy co-starring Julia Stiles, returning to the New York stage after acclaimed turns in Oleanna and Twelfth Night, and James Wirt, soon to be seen in the indie feature Billy Bates.
The three things that Sue (Stiles) has to say to Bruce (Wirt) during their meeting in a trendy NYC bar are that she had a great time with him that night; that she can’t see him anymore; and, oh, yes, she’s pregnant.
This comes as no small surprise to Bruce, who had previously been told that he was unable to have children. He’s also disappointed to learn that Sue has no interest in pursuing the relationship. But when she tells him that she plans to terminate the pregnancy, he nonetheless gallantly offers to accompany her to the abortion clinic, to which she reluctantly agrees. There’s only one hitch: it’s in Phoenix, Arizona, where she’s about to relocate.
Cut to the city whose name provides the play with a bit of heavy-handed symbolism. Bruce, true to his word, has driven cross-country to fulfill his promise, … and also, as he makes clear, to see if he can persuade Sue to change her mind about the possibility of a romance.
The play upends the usual romantic comedy conventions with its characterizations. The playful, flirty Bruce is eager to commit, while the wary, vulnerable Sue keeps him endlessly at bay. Things come to a head in the waiting room at the abortion clinic when, after revealing a dark incident from his past, he raises an idea that reduces her to hysterics.
While the plotting is both thin and contrived, the playwright displays a gift for sharp, funny dialogue that keeps the evening buoyant throughout its intermission-less 80 minutes. The fast-paced repartee is highly enjoyable, especially when Bruce delivers a comic riff about having time-traveled from the future just to score with the easily seduced women of the early 21st century.
The play wouldn’t work as well as it does save for the excellent performances. Stiles is so sexily appealing that she manages to make Sue’s often boorish behavior sympathetic, as well as demonstrating her lithe physicality with some rigorous yoga positions and a sudden cartwheel. She’s expertly matched by Wirt, who delivers a winningly laid-back comic turn that has you rooting for Bruce from the first minute.
Snappily directed by Jennifer DeLia, Phoenix, scheduled to be made into a film directed by Amy Redford, has a sly charm that sneaks up on you. As Sue eventually comes to realize, it’s futile to resist.
Cast: Julia Stiles, James Wirt
Director: Jennifer DeLia
Playwright: Scott Organ
Set designer: Caite Hevner Kemp
Costume designer: Amit Gajwani
Lighting designer: Rick Carmona
Sound designer: Janie Bullard
Presented by Nicholas Jabbour, Poverty Row Entertainment, Rian Patrick Durham, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater