Rotterdam, Jon Brittain’s play that rose from pub theater origins to become, this year, the first trans-themed play to win an Olivier Award, is now running as part of 59E59’s “Brits off Broadway” season. Towards the end of the first act on the night I saw it (which, I should note, was a preview), an actor broke a hinge on the door of the onstage closet. A more fitting piece of destruction could not have been planned.
That’s because the figurative closet doors in Rotterdam, and the characters that have come out of them, prove to be far less secure than a first glance suggests. When the story opens, we’re introduced to Alice (Alice McCarthy), who identifies as a (very neurotic) gay woman, and Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman), who outwardly identifies as the same, though swap neuroses for carefree laid-backness. The pair’s opposing personalities might be what drew them to one another; they’re in a relationship, and live together in Rotterdam, Holland. Ask either of them, though, and they’ll tell you their presence in the city is strictly temporary.
The relationship isn’t, though. Alice is drafting an email to her parents, letting them know that her “flatmate” is really her girlfriend; she’s coming out. Alice’s finger is practically over the “send” button when Fiona says it: “I think I’m a man.”
While it would be easy to assume that the 120 minutes or so that follow would center on Fiona and his transition into Adrian (the name he chooses to align with his gender identity), we mostly experience the transition through the eyes of Alice, as she navigates interactions with not only Adrian, but Adrian’s jester of an older brother, Josh (Ed Eales-White), and Lelani (Ellie Morris), Alice’s absurdly extroverted Dutch co-worker, whose pot-filled vaporizer becomes Alice’s own personal fruit of Eden.
One of Brittain’s greatest strengths as a playwright is his control of information delivery. In Josh and Fiona/Adrian’s first scene together, for instance, we do not learn that the two are brother and sister until after the interaction has been going on for several minutes, when Josh casually asks: “Have you called mum and dad today?” Leaving that information until midway through the scene forces us to reconsider the entire first part of the interaction they’ve just had under the newly-discovered lens of them being siblings. In the moment, the trick feels like a fun bit of showiness (the play is very clearly informing us that it knows more than we do), but in the context of the story at large, such moments achieve something far greater, which is that the reexamining of past interactions that it forces us to do mirrors the way in which the characters are reexamining the dynamic of their own relationships with each other in the wake of Adrian’s coming out. It’s a tactic that Brittain employs several times throughout the play, to great effect.
Speaking of relationships, Rotterdam also explores the ways in which relationships — romantic, platonic, and familial — connect us. This is done as much through Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction and Ellan Parry’s set design as it is through text. Both O’Briain and Parry manipulate time and space. In one scene, which begins with Alice literally walking out of the closet door, Alice and Lelani are standing on a frozen river, hucking fireworks into the abyss. They’re growing closer to one another — improperly so, given that Alice and Adrian are a couple. We see Alice and Leilani’s scene playing out upstage, while, downstage, Adrian can be see wordlessly popping blue balloons, staring blankly from an abstracted, internal world of his own. Both Alice and Leilani’s growing connection and the effect it will inevitably have on Adrian are condensed into a single stage picture.
That scene and others might be relatable, but it’s also important to note — as the play does, subtly — that we’re only seeing one story here. Of the three characters in Rotterdam that have gone through the experience of coming out, none have experienced it in the same way, and what we see of Adrian’s experience with coming out as transgender is shaped by a unique set of circumstances. Rotterdam isn’t trying to show a universal experience, because there isn’t one. And that’s a key lesson as well: that by rejecting universality, Rotterdam gets that much closer to it.