By Naeem Kapadia
(800 words, 2-minute read)
Two strangers meet on gay dating app Grindr and share an encounter in a hotel room. Except it’s not just fast, meaningless sex.
Budding playwright and theatremaker Theo Chen’s assured two-hander, presented by Bridging the Gap Collective, is a deceptively simple play that slowly draws one into its orbit. Over the course of 90 minutes, his characters dissect race, age, sexuality and relationships, shedding physical and emotional layers as they share a connection neither is likely to forget.
Cyril (Ezra Jazlan Kamal), a sassy army recruit who has been dancing the night away, arrives at a hotel for a hook-up, fully expecting to be done within 15 minutes. He is greeted by Michael (Peter Zazzali), a polite, middle-aged American who is visiting Singapore on business and had caught sight of him earlier that evening. After a few tentative moments, they sit at the table to have a drink. Cyril is excited but apprehensive, shimmering in a colourful halter top and dangly earrings as he cautiously fingers a glass. Michael seems more relaxed, far more keen to learn about his young visitor than jump straight into bed.
Chen’s dialogue is airy but astringent, teasing out details of each character and building a nuanced picture of two gay men and their very different lived experiences. Cyril, like his borrowed leather boots, wears his Asian queer identity with difficulty. He finds it hard to live in a community where he’s excluded not just by his sexual preference but by his minority ethnic status in the country, having to deal with dating profiles declaring a preference for “Chinese only” and ultimately seeking out foreigners who may not judge him in the same way. Yet, as we see, there is a curious double standard here. Cyril lashes out angrily when Michael calls him a “beautiful Asian man” in the throes of passion, feeling cheap and exoticised on account of his skin colour, but has no qualms about professing a preference for older, white men. When Michael turns the table on him and demands, “Am I a fetish for you?”, he suddenly finds himself at a loss for words.
Michael, in turn, is no mere faded rice queen looking for a bit of fun. We learn about his coming out in small town New Jersey, a failed long-term relationship that left him devastated for nearly a year and how he ultimately just wants someone to connect with and share experiences together. His affable, mild-mannered façade begins to crack as we see his own vulnerability and desperation for the hook-up to blossom into something more meaningful. In one of the play’s most lacerating moments, Michael asks Cyril if the latter would ever agree to go out with him in public. Cyril looks at him and says no, leaving him crestfallen. For all the power he may wield as a worldly, straight-presenting white man, nothing compares to the eternal power of youth and the sobering knowledge that he has passed his prime.
The play is buoyed by generally decent performances. Ezra, a theatre student making his professional stage debut, handles the material confidently even if he occasionally lacks the conviction to authentically convey the dialogue. His transition from nervous twink waxing lyrical about his favourite film Call Me by Your Name to enraged, woke Gen Z-er calling out a reductive label feels awkward and somewhat unconvincing. Seasoned performer and academic Zazzali is far more comfortable as Michael, the older and more experienced man who finds he still has a few more lessons to learn. Yet, one finds it hard to see how such a level-headed and composed character could realistically fall for someone he has met for the very first time, almost needily writing his phone number down on a piece of paper and asking him to spend the night.
Director Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai is sensitive to pace and turns what could have been a talky one-act play into a layered narrative, augmented by smooth jazz and mood lighting. She breaks up the action by having the actors move from table to bed to floor on Irsyad Dawood’s smart set, creating little tableaux to mark the thematic shifts. Visually, it creates a nice contrast but occasionally comes across as a little contrived. I was not particularly convinced of a scene where the characters stick two umbrellas into the bed frame, drape a blanket over the top and transform it into a tent just to romantically poke their heads out.
As one of the characters observes towards the end, it’s messy and complicated: this thing called love. Cyril & Michael is an articulate, quietly moving account of individuals navigating their complex identities and seeking that vital emotional connection. It doesn’t seek to offer us any answers but reminds us that maybe, just maybe, true happiness is one silly dance away.
Cyril & Michael by Theo Chen is directed by Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and presented by Bridging the Gap Collective. It ran from 19-22 August 2021 at the Drama Centre Black Box.
Naeem Kapadia is a finance lawyer who is also a theatre reviewer and commentator. He co-hosts the ArtsEquator theatre podcast.