By Tristan Lejeune
The national transgender debate made the cover of Sunday’s New York Times and last week’s Time magazine, but even if you’ve hit saturation on the issue, When January Feels Like Summer could offer up a fresh angle.
In fact, the two-act play, directed by Serge Seiden and going on from now until June 12 at the Atlas Theatre on H Street, is intended as a change of pace for the Mosaic Theatre Company, too. “It’s time for some comedy,” artistic director Ari Roth says in production notes. And if When January isn’t the funniest, realest or most incisive comedy you’ll see this year (and, unless you are a hermit, it definitely is not), it comes with confidence that implies, much like many of its characters, that it might not care what you think.
A native of India living in Harlem and coming into her own as transgender woman (Shravan Amin, never broad but also rarely convincing) is one of several threads in this small but ambitious tapestry. Indira is trying to convince her traditional Hindu sister, Nirmala (Lynette Rathnam) to pull the plug on her long-comatose husband in order to get life insurance to pay for Indira’s gender-reassignment surgery. That’s flat-out selfish, but Nirmala needs to let go regardless.
Meanwhile, Nirmala (Rathnam plays her tightly wound, but with plenty of soft underbelly) is being courted by Joe, a curiously well-spoken sanitation worker (Jason B. McIntosh perhaps paces out his monologues a little too carefully) with a battered past of his own. And Joe sometimes shares the subway with Devaun (Jeremy Keith Hunter) and Jeron (Vaughn Ryan Midder), two best friends who work at different Burger Kings when they aren’t sharing notes about girls or becoming increasingly obsessed with climate change.
Some good stuff: There’s not a caucasian in the bunch, and far too much theatre these days is still lily-white, even in D.C. The themes, as alluded to above, are timely but never pedantic. Debra Booth’s set and Robert Croghan’s costumes do a lot with a little.
Some not so good: Cori Thomas’s script. She puts both actors and crew through the ringer with scenes in which “global warming” means that New York City’s weather goes from heat to derecho to snow in minutes (ha… ha?); she puts two young black men on what can only be described as a homophobic quest, only to absolve them when, yes, the subject of their fear turns out to be a predator after all (hooray?); and she puts your eyes rolling heaven-ward with a few of the speeches, droll though some others may be.
When January Feels Like Summer follows an unspoken rule of the theatre: your second act should be shorter than the first; it also creates one of its own: the second act of a comedy should be funnier.
Once the audience is more familiar with the characters and rhythms, Seiden and his cast hit a lot good laughs in round two. Hunter and Midder look like they’re having fun, but the kind you’re invited to. McIntosh and Rathnam handle the sweet parts lightly and the light parts sweetly. And Amin presides over it all like the Ganesh statue downstage right, landing some sly punchlines from behind a cash-register.
Their conflicting and overlapping needs weave around themes of adaptation, truth, and throwing out the garbage. None of the conclusions they reach are especially awe-inspring, and yet the perspective offered sticks with you.
It’d be a lie to say nothing is asked of your disbelief, even in When January‘s best moments, but it’d be a lie to say nothing is given back, either.