November has arrived, but if you're looking for one last fix of Halloween candy, check out Say You Love Satan, entering its final week as part of Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series.
The tale of a graduate student who learns that his perfect new boyfriend is actually the devil's wayward son, Say You Love Satan is—in the words of one of its characters—a "gay occult thriller." It's heavily seasoned with a sense of humor reminiscent of the cult TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which gets a shout-out in the show.
Like Buffy, the play is driven by charmingly eccentric characters, the juxtaposition of the mundane and the phantasmagorical (guess what TV show is included in Satan's DVD collection?) and a liberal sprinkling of both high- and low-brow cultural references. (Satan's favorite Dostoyevsky novel is The Possessed.)
This is typical material for playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is also a writer for Marvel Comics. Most of Aguirre-Sacasa's plays contain elements of fantasy or horror, which become interesting metaphors for facing the unknown, whether that's accepting one's sexual orientation or coping with the death of a child.
In Say You Love Satan, the battle between good and evil becomes a metaphor for romantic relationships—and who hasn't had a partner who turned out to have a dark side? Or perhaps personal relationships are the metaphor for the battle between good and evil. At any rate, the play is a romp, not a treatise, and the evening plays out like a wisecracking urban legend.
The teller of the tale is Andrew (Steve Wood), the aforementioned grad student. Still recovering from a breakup with a boyfriend who fed his insecurities, Andrew has begun to distance himself from his friends. He's deliberately alone on a Friday night, doing his laundry and reading The Brothers Karamazov, when a handsome stranger (Ryan Butler) enters.
The stranger, named Jack, wows Andrew with his physique and his intelligence, and before long has whisked him off to a night of dancing and booze. Andrew is unfazed by the strangeness of the evening's events until, during a parting kiss, he notices something ominous on Jack's forehead: a small, devilish "666" tattoo.
Wood has a stage presence that is engaging but not particularly warm, a characteristic that serves him well here. Directly addressing the audience, Andrew displays shallowness, selfishness and self-justification —the kinds of minor evil that we excuse in ourselves, but find irritating in others.
Andrew is often an unappealing character, but Wood keeps him funny and light. Andrew's behavior can be disgraceful, but his bad deeds are never premeditated, and Wood clearly portrays the insecurity that runs beneath everything he does.
Butler plays the handsome devil with an appealing blend of sincerity, humility and directness. When stretching his muscles provocatively or admitting that he has read Dostoyevsky in the original Russian, he shrugs as if these things were nothing special. When proposing that Andrew leave his laundry and come clubbing, he seems not egotistical, but simply grounded and confident. Wisely, Butler leaves any sinister subtext out of his performance until later, allowing the suspense to build, and keeping the audience guessing.
Andrew's friends literally pop in and out of his life—opening doors in the set's back wall just long enough to convey a text message or to re-enact a remembered interaction.
Samantha Cormier, as Andrew's best friend, Bernadette, is brash and opinionated; she swears like a sailor. The character is little more than a cartoon, but Cormier plays her with comic bravura, stealing scenes and winning laughs right and left. She ramps up the show's energy whenever she's onstage, playing the broad comic to Andrew's fussy straight man.
Jacob Brown plays Jerrod, the impossibly virtuous not-quite-boyfriend to whom Andrew cannot commit. In other plays, Brown has shown himself to be a master of the comic caricature, but in this show, he wins laughs by acting with the big-hearted earnestness of an eager puppy. His performance is so endearing that it compensates for the exasperatingly unrelenting goodness of his character.
Playing foil to Jack's devil is Christopher Johnson, in dual roles, as a more clear-cut embodiment of evil: two ex-boyfriends—Andrew's ex, Chad, and Jack's ex, Raphael.
Chad is an unctuous, arrogant actor, self-involved to the point that he appears to exist on a different physical plane. He seems like a mere comic irritant until he begins acting out an obviously well-worn routine of emotional abuse.
Raphael—a seraph who serves as God's mouthpiece—is no less repellent. He oozes the condescension and casual abuse of power that comes of boundless self-righteousness. He may be on the side of the angels, but the satanic Jack seems saintly by contrast.
The fine ensemble is rounded out by Carley Preston in a pair of cartoon cameos, as a Drew Barrymore-loving club bouncer and as Bernadette's tree-worshipping ex-boyfriend.
When a production is so well-cast and so well-polished that it seems effortless, special credit should go to the director. Besides playing those two bad old boyfriends, Johnson directs, and he keeps all of the pieces of this funhouse of a show in perfect motion, bumping from plot twists to laughs and back again.
October may be over, but there's still time to catch some great, spooky thrills with Say You Love Satan.