Max and Sheena have been best friends forever. The only thing that keeps them from being a full-time couple is that Max is gay. No matter. They share their evenings drinking boxed wine, watching racy films, and enjoying Stephen Sondheim albums.
When love enters the fray, their relationship heads toward the rapids. Can Max and Sheena find happiness if Sheena is spending more time with another man?
Sheena Janson and Max Wojtanowicz mine their own two-decade relationship as best friends for Fruit Fly: The Musical. The somewhat fictionalized version of their story arrives at the Illusion Theater this month, following a successful Minnesota Fringe Festival run in 2012.
This version comes in longer and with new songs from composer Michael Gruber, but those rough and ready Fringe roots are intact. There are only two actors, a pianist, and a fairly simple stage dominated by a white board, where the play's basic outline has been illustrated in a flow chart, with a string of possible jokes listed.
We also see the show's original title: Fag Hag. That's a far less polite way to describe Max and Sheena's relationship. Not that "Fruit Fly" doesn't offer its own icky connotations. This, it turns out, is part of the plan.
The fictional Max and Sheena travel a similar path to the one transversed by Wojtanowicz and Janson. They meet in a community theater production as youngsters and quickly form a bond. Sheena even asks the sometimes-awkward Max to prom, but it will be a few years before he tells her why he isn't interested in dating.
Max's coming out leads to a fresh stage in their relationship, but that can't last, especially when Sheena gets a boyfriend. The still-single Max has trouble with the change, and a wedge is driven deep into their relationship. It's played mainly for laughs, but there's a tougher undercurrent. Growing up makes simple-seeming decisions messy, complex, and often painful.
These moments of reality threaten to knock Fruit Fly off balance. The sit-commy ambiance (yes, there is a direct reference to Will & Grace) sits uneasily alongside the very real agony created when the two slip apart.
Yet Janson and Wojtanowicz are able to pull it off. Part of that stems from the chemistry built by a 20-year friendship. They're naturally comfortable in each other's presence, making their characters so likeable we want to see them through the dark times.
And part of it comes from the music. There's a lot of Sondheim worship here, and not just in the running tally of references to the composer or a joke about hiding an Anyone Can Whistle record in a Bob Dylan album jacket. There are fast-paced, pun-laden lyrics and sophisticated rhyme schemes that you won't have time to fully unpack before the next barrage arrives. Gruber's songs are not as effortless as Sondheim's — few are — but the moments of disharmony sell the increasingly rough ride on stage.
It doesn't hurt that Janson and Wojtanowicz are able to play these moods, from the bright sheen of the opening number, to the heavy blues of time spent apart, to the final, halting moments when they start to forge a fresh relationship.
Politics are never an explicit part of Fruit Fly, apart from the "Vote No" T-shirt hanging on the white board. The landscape is quite a bit different than in 2012 (hello, marriage equality in Minnesota!). But an honest look at relationships, stripped of rhetoric, is always welcome.
IF YOU GO
Fruit Fly: The Musical Friday through April 11 Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, 8th Floor 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis $18-$25 For tickets and more information, call 612-339-4944.