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Julia Sirna-Frest                              photos by Maria Baranova

                                        by Arney Rosenblat

Set in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, this 21st century rom-com opens in what the playwright Kate Benson describes as a Bouchy Bar meaning "Bourgeois and also Douchy."  The play reunites Ms. Benson with her fellow Obie Award winner, director Lee Sunday Evans, whose steady imaginative hand draws sharp, lively performances from the excellent cast.

 [PORTO] is populated by patrons who are identified by their drink of choice and staff by their occupations.  Overseeing the proceedings, providing "stage commandments" is the author herself, known as [ ].  This narrative is merged with the conflicted inner thoughts of the central character Porto.The brackets also appear to be both a trap for the Millennial Porto, played with just the right mix of strength and confusion by Julia Sirna-Frest, and be a force pushing her to break free.

The voice-over guide immediately sets up some key tenets of the play by introducing a grisly matter of fact description of the production of sausage which becomes a visceral metaphor for the callous, often destructive, meat market dating scene faced by Porto and other women like her. It also, not to subtly, asks the question if we know how the sausage is made can we enjoy it, which re-enforces another major theme that life is messy.

When we first meet Porto she's contemplating living a healthier lifestyle for the umpteenth time as she decides to take her usual place at her usual bar on the way home from work which the godlike narrator helps her justify by citing how actress Lilly Langtree won her suit during the 1900's against a restaurant forcing them to admit unaccompanied women at the bar "so really…you sitting alone at the bar: A feminist act. Do it."

The play itself is a feminist act exploring the stereotypes, pressures of accepted behavior and principles that make finding love ever more difficult for intelligent thinking women who have been burned repeatedly in the meat market dating scene, and fall back on the idea that it may be better, safer, to just be alone. 

In the bar we meet an assortment of characters who accurately lampoon familiar types found in like establishments, in like cities everywhere.  There is Doug the Bartender, a pretentious foodie who owns the bar and bullies its patrons into making what he views as appropriate decisions therein, played to perfection by Noel Joseph Allain (co-founder and artistic Director of the Bushwick Starr where [PORTO] debuted in 2017)

Ugo Chukwu, Julia Sirna-Frest

Next there is Raphael the Waiter brought to life by the warmly engaging Ugo Chukwu.  He admires Porto and other women who he identifies as the "serious ones" carrying "two books to work in case they finish one on the train."  His dream is opening a bar that sells books. 

Another patron regular at the bar is Dry Sak, a spot-on Leah Karpel, Says Doug, "she doesn't eat food really, she subsists on olives and bitterness."  Dry Sak is definitely pretty, exemplifying the old adage "Never too thin."  Her self-centered attitude, however, makes her clueless to the fact that she, not others, is the cause of her obvious destructive behavior.

Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel, Noel Joseph Allain, Jorge Cordova. 

The newest member to join the bar regulars is Hennepin, an appealing Jorge Cordova.  He's a nice looking, flannel-y beer drinking sort of guy seeking a Hennepin, some food and, if the opportunity presents itself, a hook-up. When it does, the foreplay between Porto and himself, as they lob back and forth the books they've read, such as Infinite Jest, Moby Dick, Sound and Fury, Lolita, Catcher and the Rye, each in its own way about longing, the search for happiness and fulfillment, is a mordantly delightful moment in the play. 

In her head, Porto is counseled by a chorus of Dumb Bunnies, a pair of human size friends in rabbit suits (played by Doug and Raphael), who provide her with stock advice on how to attract a man, "You don't need to eat so much" "You don't need to drink so much”... "What you need to get a man is to wear lipstick and high heels..., short skirts and long legs... a tighter higher bottom..., some sparkle" Porto's response to this advice is to share with her bunny companions some of her dinner, hasenpfeffer, telling them after they partake, it's rabbit stew. 

Later, the morning after Porto and Hennepin connect, while Hennepin is still sleeping in Porto's bed, the pair of counselors appear once more but this time at the kitchen table as Simone De Beauvoir and Gloria Steinhem to provide advice and debate on the new era of feminist dogma.  "You might let him sleep and take yourself out for a lavish breakfast," offers Simone. "Whatever you do," emphasizes Gloria, "do not cook for him."   It's both an hilarious and all too true scene today for most women as they analyze the implications of doing something as simple as making a bed partner a cup of coffee. 

Kristen Robinson's set design captures the needed elements of the striving upper middle-class bar and Porto’s book-lined apartment transitioning smoothly from one to the other with the use of opening and closing stage curtains. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and Kate Marvin's sound is effective and supports the changing moods. Asta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are just right for the occasion. 

[PORTO] argues with wit and charm the importance of breaking free of societal confines, accepting who you are and opening yourself up to the possibilities of life. There are a lot of voices talking to you, listen to the ones that are best and right for you. 


Off Broadway play

WP Theater, 2162 Broadway. Upper West Side

212 352-3101

Running time approximately 80 minutes

Closing date: March 4, 2018