'Unpacking in P'town' premieres at New Conservatory Theatre Center

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday March 12, 2024
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(L-R) Matt Weimer, Stephen Kanaski, Desiree Rogers, and Awele in 'Unpacking in P'Town' (photo: Lois Tema)
(L-R) Matt Weimer, Stephen Kanaski, Desiree Rogers, and Awele in 'Unpacking in P'Town' (photo: Lois Tema)

Watching "Unpacking in P'town," a New Conservatory Theater Center commission now having its premiere production feels a bit like screening a black-and-white movie that's been colorized.

The play, an unusual and unfortunate misfire by esteemed lesbian writer Jewelle Gomez, is set in one period, but the references of later eras have been imposed upon it. Despite good intentions and often charming performances, the show lacks internal logic. It treats time like tossed salad.

The struggle with asynchrony is there from the get-go. It's 1959 and a quartet of former vaudevillians is gathering for their traditional seasonal retreat to Provincetown. But vaudeville breathed its last in the early 1930s, and there's virtually nothing said about how these old friends have spent the past three decades.

While drawing mid-20th-century characters with identities linked to times long gone, Gomez simultaneously piles their dialogue high with identity politics from times yet to come.

ShawnJ West and Matt Weimer and Awele in 'Unpacking in P'Town' (photo: Lois Tema)  

Crazy quilt chronology
How credible is it for a Black character in 1959 to object to the term "master bedroom"? Or for everyone else around to instantly get his point? How likely that a mixed-race character of the period would eloquently articulate a sense of feeling othered by both the African- and Native-American communities and be life-coached into embracing her Wampanoag self by Black friends.

Most of the show's drama concerns romantic relationships which seem framed through a lens of 1990s self-help standards. Minty (Desiree Rogers), is a lesbian recently dumped by her partner and afraid to reach out to the local pizza chef she's pined for over many summers. Longtime couple Scottie (Matt Weimer) and Buster (ShawnJ West), are feeling the natural strains of a lasting relationship.

And then there's Lydia (mononymed Awele) who reads Harlequin novels by the stack, preferring their predictable happy endings to the vicissitudes of real-live romance (This may also serve as an unconscious rationale for spending all of her vacations hidden away in a queer enclave).

There are also two coming out sub-plots: Scottie is shamed by his friends for not explaining his relationship with Buster to his elderly father. Really? In 1959? The gang, now including Scottie, also urges Anando (Stephen Kanaski), a working class P'town teen to be out and proud with his own Portuguese immigrant Dad. It's as if a YA novel published last week tumbled into a souped-up Delorean. Also: The ghost story and the musical finale.

If you're searching for queer theater that features a time warp, you can clearly do better than "Unpacking in P'town."

'Unpacking in P'Town,' through March 31. $25-$65. New Conservatory Theater Center. 25 Van Ness Ave. (415) 861-8972. www.nctcsf.org

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