Liam Williams’ debut play Travesty has all the makings of your basic relationship drama. A couple progressively becomes more intimate, engage in arguments over topics big and small, and struggle with the shifting power of desire and love between the partners. Pretty standard theatrical fare. But hold on, there’s a “twist”: a female actor plays Ben, the man in the heterosexual relationship at issue, and a male actor plays Anna, the woman in the relationship.
Anna (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Ben (Lydia Larson) are getting to know each other. They’ve had a few dates and slept together a couple of times. We watch their relationship develop over the hour-long play.
Focusing on the gendered ways we look at relationships or gender bias in playwriting would be a welcome lens for an on stage drama. Unfortunately, this play barely nicks the surface of these interesting topics.
Nothing in the production becomes radically altered by the casting choice. We see physical tenderness in a female character rendered by a man in performance. We experience false bravado in a male character interpreted by a woman. Perhaps we are supposed to make discoveries from the swap—a sudden smack across the head where we recognize our own gender biases in how we read this behavior. Was that tenderness or bravado or was I projecting it where it does not exist? But no such insight arises.
Larson and Niel-Mee d0 not seem to physically explore gendered movement through their bodies. In the midst of the play I started thinking about an article about trans men and the coded physical language of gender that these trans men described as they interacted with cis men. As Larson smiled frequently throughout the show as Ben, I thought about how the trans man in the article had learned to smile less as a man than he had when presenting as a woman. I gained no similar revelations from the ways Larson and Niel-Mee presented their characters here. The text of the play also fails to illuminate how intimacy may be communicated by men and women in different ways.
As a couple Anna and Ben wrestle with class, education, finances, anxieties, and insecurities. But nothing in the play makes these conversations particularly unique or engaging. Time passes and the depth of the relationship changes, from hookup to commitment. The characters’ investment in each other evolves. But these characters hardly earn our attention at any point along the way.
Rather Travesty is a bit like being trapped listening to an irritating couple at the next table at brunch as they bicker about whether to go to the park, or not, that Sunday. Within the confines of the bubble of their relationship the concession to go to the park (or not) may have meaning or resonance to the partners. But from outside that bubble we need something more to care about. Swapping the gender of the performers in this instance was not enough to transform a weak play into something richer.