I am a Brooklyn-dwelling, 30-something white woman sitting in a hip Brooklyn coffee shop to write about a play about a Brooklyn-dwelling, 30-something white woman that takes place in a hip Brooklyn bar. It gets worse. I just ate avocado toast.
If you’re put off by the above, I don’t blame you. (And honestly, the toast was only okay; I know, I know, I should just make it at home.) You might be feeling like I was as I walked into Kate Benson’s [PORTO] at the Women’s Project, a play that bills itself as “an upside-down romantic comedy” about a regular in a “serious” bar — “a staple of a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood.” I admit to squirming slightly as I took my seat: It all felt a touch solipsistic. But you — and I — would be wrong to let our doubts win the day. [PORTO] sneaks up on you: For all its hyper-self-awareness, it’s ultimately a play about learning to look out rather than always, always in. It’s a smart, surprising ode to the modern woman’s anxious, circuitous quest for simultaneous self-actualization, pleasure, and perhaps even love — an examination of the conditioning we receive, the ways in which we wake up to it (or don’t), and what we decide to do about it.
[PORTO] is receiving its second run uptown after a widely praised debut last year at the Bushwick Starr, a small but mighty venue that’s making a habit of sending its consistently exciting productions out for another life. Though the Brooklyn neighborhood in which the play takes place isn’t named, it’s pretty clear that our heroine’s bar is probably located somewhere off the L train, perhaps even on the same block as the theater where [PORTO] premiered. Our heroine is Porto, the expressive Julia Sirna-Frest, immediately familiar in skinny jeans and tummy-hiding patterned tops smartly curated by Ásta Bennie Hostetter. Sirna-Frest’s performance is a thoughtful, rewarding slow burn. Though the play circles around her, she’s a quiet center at first — the one who brings a book to the bar, who listens to the problems of her best friend rather than airing her own, who knows there are no romantic comedies starring “the woman like me.” She’s got the tired eyes and the held breath of someone who’s full of much more than she’s releasing at any given moment. She’s single, she’s on her way home from work, she’s worried about her weight and her singleness, and when we meet her, she’s contemplating “for the 57th time today” living a healthier, more responsible life. Sirna-Frest stands alone in a spotlight, facing us and fidgeting wordlessly — and all too recognizably — as a godlike female voice-over runs through the list of everything Porto should probably give up: “Meat, wheat, dairy, sugar, salt, take-out, chips, fish — fish? Mercury. Right. Fish.”
That voice-over is our guide through [PORTO] the play, and its name, as credited in the show’s program, is the set of brackets that surround Porto the woman. It’s both the box she’s trapped inside and the force that’s pushing her to break out of it. It’s sometimes sympathetic, sometimes bullying, always blunt. It delivers, according to Benson, not stage directions but “stage commandments.” It can order the stereotypical Edison bulbs hanging over the bar to brighten or dim, it can clear the stage of characters or jolt Porto into a different reality (“You are standing at the edge of a lake … Yet the bar remains. You do not need to know why.”), it can get inside her head, and it can get inside ours. Sometimes, it coolly delivers extended, nauseatingly detailed descriptions of the ugly process that creates some tasty artisanal delicacy: sausage, say, or bacon. It’s the voice of a connoisseur, someone with opinions (“Some people like to add fennel. I don’t”), and the voice of an analyst, a dissector — and a playwright. Yes, that’s Kate Benson murmuring through the mike, playing a game with her own writer’s omnipotence. Her recurring image isn’t exactly a subtle one, but it becomes a visceral central metaphor: If we know how the sausage is made, can we enjoy it? If we — like Porto — are the kind of people, the kind of women, who think about everything, can we ever experience anything? Is it possible to escape the anxiety of analysis?
Or, for that matter, the anxiety of influence? The omniscient god of the brackets isn’t the only voice in Porto’s ear. There’s Doug the Bartender, a surly, superior, neck-tattooed dude who informs us that “only douchebags get the Thai sausage” instead of the foie gras. There’s Raphael the Waiter, a friendly, knowing girl’s-best-friend of a guy who’s got a soft spot for “the serious ones,” the girls “who carry two books to work in case they finish one on the train.” There’s Dry Sac, Porto’s super-hot, super-skinny, super-tipsy friend, the kind of girl who rolls up to a bar already drunk, foaming with frustration over her shitty-shitty-shitty day, railing against the “evil stupid thieving motherfucking thieves” who stole her bike after she locked it up by only the wheel. And then there’s Hennepin — the new guy at the bar. Bearded. Flannel-y. Reading Infinite Jest. Kinda chunky. Kinda hot? Almost ordered the Thai sausage (“D-bag potential,” scoffs Doug).
Benson must have worked in food service at some point. Only the servers in [PORTO], the ones behind the bar, have names. The people on the other side, perched on the wooden stools eating hasenpfeffer and fried chickpeas, are known by what they consume. If you are what you eat, Benson seems to be suggesting, then aren’t we all just convoluted cocktails of good intentions and self-indulgence — attempts at responsibility and kindness interrupted by inevitable slips into cruelty? [PORTO] is a play about guilt and pleasure. And so of course it’s a play about being a woman: It can take decades to tease apart the net of social conditioning that’s taught us to connect the two. “I like sex!” Porto exclaims in a burst of frustration, “I don’t know what to do with men.” In the parlance of our day, the struggle is real. How do we navigate the new era of feminism? The era of #SmashThePatriarchy and #MeToo and #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen — of “Cat Person” and pussy hats and TERFs and SWERFs and intersectionality and Tinder and sex positivity and internalized sexism and woke misogyny and mansplaining and privilege checking and Lean In and Grab Back and oh my god, I need a drink.
And that’s where the bar comes in. “Do it,” the voice croons to Porto, encouraging her to cure all that ails her with an artisanal burger and a beer. “You know you want to … And after all, Lillie Langtry sued for the right for women to be allowed into the bar. So really, you sitting alone at the bar: A Feminist Act.” As Benson’s play moves toward its central encounter — the you-can-see-it-coming-a-mile-away hookup between Porto and Hennepin and the perturbations of the morning after — it becomes increasingly powerful. I found myself a little distanced from the nudgy-winky digs at Brooklyn hipsters that dominate the first half-hour or so of [PORTO], but the minute that Benson took clear aim at the vexed territory of feminism, sex, desire, shame, what we want from our partners, and what we feel we should do for them (no matter the brevity of the encounter) — I could feel her punches right in the chest. Director Lee Sunday Evans gets smart, pointed, playful performances out of her entire cast, but Ugo Chukwu and Noel Joseph Allain (the Bushwick Starr’s artistic director in a delightful cross-disciplinary stage turn) do especially fantastic work in a surreal scene that occurs in the dawn hours while Hennepin is still sleeping in Porto’s bed.
Here we leave the bar fully behind for the first time, as Kristen Robinson’s meticulous, beautifully crafted set pulls an effective trick to transport us to Porto’s apartment — where Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir appear to be hanging around our heroine’s kitchen table, drinking whiskey out of coffee mugs and debating what she should do about her naked, beardy houseguest. Steinem is Doug the Bartender (Allain); de Beauvoir is Raphael the Waiter (Chukwe), both in subtle but glorious drag, both overwhelming Porto with an onslaught of pre-breakfast second-wave feminism. “You might wake him up and tell him it’s time to leave,” suggests Gloria-Doug. “You might let him sleep and take yourself out for a lavish breakfast,” muses Simone-Raphael. “Whatever you do,” snaps Gloria-Doug, “do not cook for him.”
It’s a remarkable scene: laugh-out-loud hilarious and agonizingly true. It’s no joke — we do debate the terrifying avalanche of possible implications of something as seemingly simple as making the dude in your bed a cup of coffee. And Benson’s decision to put two iconic feminists into the bodies of male actors, though it might initially bristle the hairs on the backs of some necks, is in fact a brilliant twist: In the end, they’re just more voices, more influences, more boxes forcing the self into a certain shape. Porto should feel no more compelled to obey the commandments of Steinem and de Beauvoir than she should to answer Raphael the Waiter when he pries about her sex life, or to kowtow to Doug the Bartender’s endlessly on-tap snobbery, or to listen to [the Playwright] herself. Delete the brackets around your own person, your own desires, Benson is arguing. It doesn’t mean you have to listen to no one — after all, Simone de Beauvoir delivers her own version of the playwright’s cry: “YOU HAVE TO STOP ASKING IF IT’S OKAY.” It just means that the choice of whom you listen to — and what you eat and what you read and who you sleep with and what happens after — belongs to you. And the business of life is to start looking those choices clear in the eye and making them known, with courage and without shame.
Or, in the immortal words of Simone de Beauvoir, “Stop being an asshole.”
[PORTO] is at the McGinn-Cazale Theater through February 25.