NY Theater Review By Eric J. Grimm
Small talk that begins with, “Some weather we’re having,” doesn’t bode well for meaningful conversation. Such is the doomed nature of Cori Thomas’ When January Feels Like Summer, which uses an unseasonably warm winter in Harlem as a means of bringing together its stock characters and having them deal with homosexuality, transgender issues, race, euthanasia, and, of course, global warming. The intention is to be touching and funny but it’s consistently sloppy and offensive and hardly worth the effort that Ensemble Studio Theatre and Page 73 have put into the production.
Thomas’ play is set in “Harlem,” though it’s unclear where we are in that sprawling area of New York City. Manhattanville? East Harlem? It should make a difference, but like her characters, Thomas’ sense of location is generalized. “Harlem” is just enough to get the characters hanging out on the subway and in the bodega, though credit is due to scenic designer Jason Simms for creating realistic interpretations of those settings.
The play follows two intersecting storylines. Devaun (Maurice Williams) and Jeron (J. Mallory McCree) are two young black men who are determined to spread the word about a flamboyant homosexual man who made a pass at the former. Devaun and Jeron put on a rapid-fire buffoon act, particularly Devaun, who is prone to malapropisms, bad grammar, and excruciating naïveté. Williams is bright eyed and charming enough to squeeze a few genuine moments out of the character, particularly when he doesn’t speak. Devaun and Jeron’s suspicions prove well founded as the offstage homosexual man is outed as a sexual deviant and the knucklehead duo become local heroes.
Thomas intends to balance this silly and homophobic narrative move with the second storyline involving Indian grocers. Nirmala (Mahira Kakkar) is the stiff upper-lipped owner of the store who refuses to pull the plug on a comatose husband who refused to have sex with her. Indira (Debargo Sanyal) is her sister, a trans woman desperate for Nirmala to end her husband’s life and pay for gender reassignment surgery with insurance money.
The sisters both have suitors. Joe (Dion Graham), a black sanitation worker with a heart of gold, has his eyes on Nirmala, but she can’t seem to give up on a husband she never loved. Devaun, with his history of virulent homophobia, is hot for Indira, but doesn’t know she is a trans woman. The women eventually agree to go on dates with the men because they are both fractured souls in desperate need of sexual attention from men in order to make them feel complete. Nirmala will take a chance on Joe even if it means the end of her marriage and Indira will acquiesce to Devaun’s plea for a date even if it means he might harm her once she’s revealed her true nature. Their fears are all for naught as Indira’s prayer to Hindu god Ganesh restores the winter weather and makes both dates go smoothly.
Indira is the most troubling aspect of Thomas’ ludicrous play. Her transition is almost entirely played for comedy as she frequently trips over her pronouns and new name and chuckles at the idea that Devaun might kill her once he realizes she is trans. Sanyal adopts a robotic valley girl personality once Indira begins to dress as a woman. Indira has a few scripted moments to tearfully bare her soul, but her disgust with her body is an obvious and harmful way of psychologizing her transition. It’s obvious that we shouldn’t take Indira or the play seriously when she convinces Devaun to sleep with her by explaining away her genitalia as a useless elephant trunk, but this is a shameful depiction of a trans woman that manages to be both overly simplistic and bizarrely way off the mark.
Director Daniella Topol stages scenes efficiently and has a good sense of pacing, but she’s complicit in these poor characterizations. I don’t doubt that there are characters like Thomas’ dwelling somewhere in Harlem, but all of them embody and affirm negative stereotypes. What should merely be schmaltzy and sugary has a vicious and rotten undercurrent.
When January Feels Like Summer is playing at Ensemble Studio Theatre (549 West 52nd Street, 2nd Floor (between 10th & 11th Aves); 866.811.4111) from May 28-June 22, 2014 – running time 2 hrs. 15 min.