Anon at Gremlin Theatre

Rachel Finch and Andrew Sass work on their intimacy issues
courtesy of 20% Theatre Company

It all starts with a cat.

Successful city-type Trip hires Allison, an animal-behavior specialist, to make a house call to work out why his cat—named, simply enough, Cat—won't come out from under the couch. It doesn't take long for a professional visit to turn personal and for the sparks to fly between Trip and Allison.

It's a typical romantic comedy "meet-cute," but after that there's nothing typical about Kate Robin's Anon, making its regional premiere in a thrilling production by 20% Theatre Company at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul. Our two main characters have issues with intimacy that threaten to unhinge the budding romance, but there's no simple final-act solution here. Instead, it's a continued spiral downward into different types of addiction.

For our young lovers, that comes from an issue torn from a Dan Savage column. Trip loves everything about Allison, except the actual act of making love. For whatever reason, he doesn't find her sexually attractive. Allison points to his porn collection as a possible source—and tries to fix that, first by eliminating the source ("some of those are Betamax," Trip complains), and then recommending that he join a support group for men with sexual addictions.

Still, that isn't the "anon" of the title. That refers instead to a parallel support group for the women in these relationships. Their experiences are played out in a series of monologues that threaten to bring home Robin's themes about domination, traditional roles, and victimhood a little too plainly. Thankfully, the 10 actors taking on these roles do a sublime job inhabiting their characters. It also helps that Allison, who becomes a member at Trip's suggestion, takes a more complex and shaded journey than comes out in these monologues.

The same goes for scenes involving Trip's parents, who have their own issues with intimacy and sexuality. Bert is a philanderer who essentially flaunts his desires to his long-suffering, devoutly Catholic wife, Rachelle. It would have been easy to leave the cycle right there—Trip's problems come from a wandering father and a religious mother—but Robin's script again takes us deeper, uncovering uncomfortable truths at the heart of the family's relationships.

Leading the charge are Andrew Sass as Trip and Rachel Finch as Allison. Sass makes Trip an easygoing fellow who just wants to please—and truly love—this woman. Sass also gives us enough subtle clues—like a need to make everything squared up on the coffee table—to indicate there's something more going on underneath the cute, boyish charm.

Finch handles a different challenge with Allison. This is a character who wants to make things better at every turn, be it making Cat happier (including scooping out the dirty litter on her first visit; now that's commitment), or trying to get to the bottom of Trip's issues. All the while, she has trouble seeing the problems she constantly masks with her attempts to improve everything around her. Allison's slow realization of her deep, unsettled issues is the real crux of the play, and Finch brings out all of the concern, pain, and eventual understanding that lie at the heart of the character.

As Trip's parents, Stuart Holland and Kathy Jenkins Piotter have characters that are less well-rounded than the younger couple. Holland's Bert is written mainly as the wandering husband whose lusts run deep, but the actor gamely plays along, making the character if not sympathetic at least understandable. Piotter takes what could easily be a one-note role, the overbearing Catholic mother, and inhabits it not just with understanding but real fear, anger, and even menace.

There's a moment late in the second act, after some revelations have been made, where many playwrights would have ended the story. Robin pushes on, however, taking us deep into the consequences of those revelations. It's here where the performances among the main trio (Bert pretty much disappears by this point) take off into rarified territory, as veneers crack and the pulsing anger and pain beneath the characters finally come into the light. It would be easy for the show to slip into disease-of-the-week melodrama here, but director Claire Avitabile and the actors keep the focus on the real, troubled souls of the characters.

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