"If the world were coming to an end, one of us would get a text. Right?" asks Louisito midway through Alan Berks's intriguing How to Cheat, now running at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul. As occasional sounds of destruction crash in from outside, an unlikely pair talk and make love in a physics-defying bedroom packed with the forgotten flotsam and jetsam of their unseen host.
While the philosophizing of the early part makes for a slow start, the pair—expertly played by Randy Reyes and Candy Simmons—quickly pick up heat as their mutual attraction, or maybe just boredom, causes them to let down their respective guards.
Reyes plays Louisito Lobo, a biochemist working on stem-cell research who feels like an outsider wherever he goes. Simmons is Meredith, a world-traveling journalist who is unhappily married to a banker. They've met at some swank party but fled the noise and hubbub to find a silent place to talk.
How to Cheat
Gremlin Theatre, 2400 University Ave., St. Paul
Through December 10; 651.228.7008
For foreplay, they talk about ethics and science, never really puncturing each other's beliefs until they finally find each other in the bed positioned at the top of the set. Their talk centers mainly on Louisito, who easily defends his chosen field against the religious-tinged objections brought up by Meredith. No, the breaks in his armor show as he describes his deeper motivations—of how being Filipino isolated him from the larger American society as a youth, and how he's been using that as motivation not just for his success but for his philandering ways.
I'm always up for philosophizing onstage, but at times the discussion drags down the play's momentum. Once the leads get into bed together, Berks's work flies off into a string of dream and fantasy scenes, which let the action—and the actors—finally let loose.
We get an intense dream from Meredith about her work, including a harrowing confrontation with an injured wild dog. That's followed by a terrific moment when their lovemaking is represented by a series of card games, climaxing with playing cards spread all over the set.
Both of the characters, so sure of themselves as they mentally fence in the first moments, begin to lose that assured control as the story deepens. This is especially true of Meredith, whose dreams showcase a well of doubt at the core of her being—about the worth of the job she does, about her marriage to a rich banker whose politics are far from her own, and her own motivation for following Louisito away from the party.
That becomes clear in the play's endgame, as they awake from their lovemaking to more signs of outside destruction, and a whole well of anger and denial. The characters' intelligence is always on display as they at first talk, then "cheat," and finally try to deal with the consequences of their actions.
Berks's play, a revised piece that originally ran in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, is about asking questions, not answering them. It's a stance I certainly approve of, as it lets the audience members, who are often acknowledged as participants in the proceedings, draw their own conclusions of what has happened—and is happening.
It helps to have a pair of terrific performers onstage, whose ease with their initial characters and unease with each passing moment only ramp up the central questions of the play. They bring out the myriad shades within Louisito and Meredith, which makes it easier for us to take the mad journey that follows with them.
That madness is played out on a singularly inventive set from John Bueche. It builds up layers in a spiral on the Gremlin stage, topped off with a blood-red bed where the eventual "action" takes place. Bits and pieces of old furniture not only litter the stage but are hung from the rafters, making you wonder about the exact geography of the room.
How to Cheat doesn't offer easy answers, but it isn't necessarily a "difficult" show. Berks's script is agile and facile, while the performances of Reyes and Simmons give us perfect guides for this trip into the unknown.