Quite simply put, Backseats & Bathroom Stalls is the funniest comedy I’ve seen so far in the 2008-2009 season. Rob Mersola’s pansexual sex farce not only had me laughing out loud (and quite loudly indeed) through its non-stop 80 minutes of hilarious surprises but kept me on the edge of my seat trying to guess what was coming next. It also has one of the best “I didn’t see that one coming” surprises since The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense.

We begin (where else?) in a backseat and (simultaneously) in a bathroom stall … as roommates Josie and Calvin are getting it off in separate parts of New York’s Lower East Side, she with a dude named Harlan in the backseat of a car and he with a guy named Charlie in a conveniently located bathroom stall.

From then on, Backseats & Bathroom stalls takes off in a bunch of unpredictable directions, adding two more characters to the mix—a half-Italian, half-gypsy lothario named Giuseppi and a woman who shall remain nameless for now, but not forever.

Josie (Sadie Alexandru) is a magnet for bad men, still reeling from the aftermath of losing her fiancée to her erstwhile best friend (though Josie can hardly complain given that she and her ex-BFF had managed to sleep with each and every one of each other’s boyfriends).

Calvin (Joshua Bitton) is such a hopelessly romantic young gay man that he automatically assumes a blowjob in a bathroom stall to be the first step towards marriage with the man of his dreams.

Harlan (Michael Alperin) is a film student more interested in getting his rocks off than falling in love, a dude soon to make some surprising discoveries about just who he’s willing and even eager to have service his much-vaunted “member.” 

Charlie (Daniel Ponickly) looks like a stockbroker/TV soap star, is in actual fact a waiter, claims to be cheating on his boyfriend, is in actual fact cheating on his fiancée, claims to be straight, may in actual fact not be as straight as he claims.

Giuseppi (Anil Kumar) is Italian on his father’s side, gypsy on his mother’s, 100% heterosexual, able to read palms, and born with a special talent in sniffing out liars.

Woman (Jeni Pearsons) has, it would appear, no name and little luck with men, the latter trait becoming evident when she discovers her fiancé with a creamy white stain on his necktie which he claims is pizza.

Backseats & Bathroom Stalls is built on a series of uproarious, mostly two-person scenes which allow each character to interact at least once with every other character until all come together in the same place at the same time to hysterical effect. Because three of the four male characters are (in no particular order) gay, bi-claiming-to-be-straight-but-perhaps-neither, and  questioning, the production is an obvious draw to the gay theater crowd, and proof that independent productions are frequently as good as if not better than what the gay theaters have to offer.  At the same time, Friday’s audience was decidedly mixed, and unlike most so-called “gay comedies,” Backseats & Bathroom Stalls is one that open-minded straight audiences seem to be eating up just as much as their same-sex-minded counterparts. 

Playwright Mersola’s direction is every bit as crackerjack as his writing, scenes moving along lickety-split, blackouts between them gratifyingly short with the exception of several scenes which are deliberately (and effectively) played in the dark.

Backseats & Bathroom Stalls also features one of the most all-around outstanding comedy ensembles you’re likely ever to see on one of our locals stages.

Pearsons lucks out with the most interesting, complex, and probably best-written character, someone who seems at first to be nothing but an uptight young woman fixated on one thing and one thing alone—her upcoming nuptials.  Then, as the onion skins are peeled away (as is Pearsons’ blouse in one particularly delicious scene), the gifted actress gets to be funny, sexy, and touching, cry real tears and vent real anger. It’s a joy of a performance to watch.

The rest of the ensemble shines brightly as well.  Bitton plays gay about as convincingly (and uncondescendingly) as any straight actor I’ve seen.  His Calvin is sweet, innocent, and utterly adorable—and worlds removed from the short-tempered, pugnacious loose cannon he played in the Pasadena Playhouse’s Of Mice And Men. Alexandru is a marvelous comedienne, making the multi-quirked, low-self-esteemed Josie a joy to watch, never more so than in her uproarious verbal catfight with Pearsons.  Alperin is so good and so cute and so winning as the perpetually horny undergrad Harlan that one is willing and even eager to excuse his macho pride in having a “really big” one. Tall, handsome Ponickly (who originated the role of Charlie in New York) is perfectly cast and absolutely terrific as the waiter who looks like a stockbroker who looks like a soap star.  (His “what is that stain on your tie” scene with Pearsons is an utter riot.) Finally, there’s Broadway’s Anil Kumar, perfection as half-gypsy all-male Giuseppi, who’ll likely do or say anything to get a woman in the sack (or backseat or bathroom stall), the actor scoring some of the evening’s biggest laughs with a single (and perfectly timed) interjection, “Liar!”

Uncredited design components are all just fine, the play needing nothing more than its minimalist set (a front seat and a bathroom stall, both black against black walls).  This is one show which is absolutely about the writing, direction, and performances, with all three elements coming together in perfect synergy to make for absolute hilarity.

Lyric Hyperion Theatre Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silverlake.

–Steven Stanley
December 12, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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