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A CurtainUp Review
Five Times in One Night
By Jacob Horn
Atik's play fits none of those associations but is one of the most highbrow sex comedies I've seen. It's smartly and tightly written ("as smart as it is sexy" feels clichéd but apt). Performers Dylan Dawson and Darcy Fowler make an endlessly appealing duo, and RJ Tolan's direction is precise and well-tuned, making Five Times in One Night the latest in a line of strongly compelling works to come out of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood program.
In five different scenes, starting in a post-apocalyptic future and ending back in the Garden of Eden (with stops along the way in the present day and medieval Europe), Atik imagines how sex and relationships might be discussed within the specific circumstances of each situation. The couples, all played by Dawson and Fowler, have a lot to reckon with: being the first or last humans on earth. . . with their love being forbidden by social mores. . . with the difficulties of negotiating the line between sex and love. . . even just with how to keep a long-term relationship exciting in the bedroom.
The conversations that result can be as tragic as they are hilarious, as uncomfortable as they are engrossing. Dawson and Fowler are themselves Youngblood alums, with a history of working with each other, Atik, and Tolan (one of the program's artistic directors). They are wholly committed to the script, awkward moments and all, and the sense of magnetism between the two is palpable. It's never difficult to imagine the two as romantically involved, no matter which characters they're playing, and this chemistry exists between them as performers, too. Between scenes, for example, the two actors walk to the back corners of the stage to change costumes. During these brief moments out of character, they make eye contact and smile at one another, a small but significant gesture that demonstrates each one's commitment to making the other look good once the lights came back up.
Subtle but careful attention to detail from scenic designer Jason Simms, costume designer Audrey Nauman, and lighting designer Greg MacPherson results in the creation of five scenes that feel meaningfully, if not substantially, different from each other— physically as well as on paper.
The intimate space of EST's sixth floor studio is well used, with a casual arrangement of couches around three sides of the stage, accounting for nearly half of the seating, helping to break down the division between performers and audience. Since the play ultimately seems most interested in how we treat sex today, being able to watch the reactions of these spectators feels like an important part of the performance.
While Five Times in One Night covers a broad swath of history, it's a strikingly contemporary play. It feels profoundly influenced by the way sex is showcased in today's network sitcoms, reality shows, and premium cable series. Sound designer Dan Spitaliere draws heavily upon popular songs of the last decade or so for the music between scenes.
Atik's writing also uses contemporary speech patterns throughout. The scene with Heloise and Abelard, a student and her tutor engaged in an illicit affair in the year 1106, is told entirely through letters that sound more like text messages. Atik shines here as she outfits inventive premises like this with natural, genuine-sounding dialogue and integrates her sharp sense of humor, which can be as concerned with brains as it is with bodies (one clever Priapus reference even manages to be both at the same time). Dawson and Fowler, in turn, do full justice to her writing on stage, proving themselves agile performers in the process.
Five Times in One Night is a charming success and it's easy to imagine that this trio of Youngbloods is just getting started.