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Step Mom, Step Mom, Step Mom’s affectionate nudging of New York yuppies and focus on farcical sexual politics between couples often evokes Woody Allen and Neil Simon’s Sixties plays. But this world premiere, now onstage at InterAct, feels distinct for its focus on the hang-ups and neuroses of an interracial husband and wife: Kaila (Jessica Johnson) and Louis (Scott R. Sheppard).
Jahna Ferron-Smith’s smart script aptly captures two people who love each other but are at the stage where they’re a little too comfortable. Kaila is fantasizing about her seductive, dominating ex, Mark (Abdul Sesay), and she and Louis are already having scheduled sex five years into the relationship.
However, when Kaila, a Black woman, suggests Louis get a little more forceful with her in bed, he’s not sure what to do. This good-natured spouse (a running gag throughout is his obsession with setting up a climate change podcast) has learned to not be too aggressive, especially because he’s a white man. How can golden retriever Louis ever measure up to the washboard-stomached, uber-handsome Mark?
The model of a modern play
Barefoot in the Park and Sondheim’s Company may feel dated to contemporary audiences, but viewers at the time wanted art that spoke to the social and countercultural changes taking place. The audience attending Step Mom, Step Mom, Step Mom’s opening night responded strongly to the production’s references and hot-button themes, whether laughing at a familiar streaming jingle heard early on or nodding during the especially heated confrontation scenes. The conversations between Kaila and Louis about race and sexuality feel like ones an actual 21st-century interracial married couple would have, which is huge when current pop culture is rather disinterested in the present moment.
There’s also Kaila’s longtime friend Tichelle (Donovan Lockett), a queer woman going through her own turbulence with her longtime partner. In a shallower effort, Tichelle would’ve been the gay best friend. Instead, she insists that she’s independent from Kaila’s narrative about her own insecurities and then allows herself to emotionally collapse in her friend’s arms. Lockett has only a few scenes, yet makes a strong impact on the stage with Johnson as they bicker and unfold yoga mats with perfectly choreographed snaps.
Removing the walls
Director Matt Dickson and set designer Cecilia Shin stage Step Mom in a cramped New York apartment built without any walls between rooms, which only adds to the sometimes-uneasy intimacy between the characters. If Mark or Louis are offstage and are mentioned in the dialogue, they sit close by and stick to the shadows, as if dormant in Kaila’s mind. Aiding in the intense theatricality of it all are Johnson and Sheppard’s hilarious, riveting performances. Johnson’s part requires strong comedy chops and human complexity, and she handily delivers both, while Sheppard late in the play finds new depth in Louis’s reluctance to learn what he really wants out of sex. Both actors share the chemistry of two people who love and know each other too well.
This isn’t to say that Step Mom is perfect. Ferron-Smith’s dialogue is best when Kaila, Louis, and Tichelle are evading emotional minefields with each other. (Mark meanwhile says exactly what he thinks and wants.) She also nails how the couple’s use of podcast-enhanced communication techniques requires nervously performing for one another’s sake. But this also means that when they start arguing directly, especially near the end, the narrative becomes flatter and closer to listening in on someone’s counseling sessions rather than a satire of therapy-speak.
Kink, farce, and drama
Nevertheless, Ferron-Smith understands that “everyone has their reasons,” especially the loving but deeply insecure Kaila and Louis. Sesay was an audience favorite as the ludicrous fantasy version of Mark, but even the real ex, when he appears, has insight into Kaila’s unconscious motivations. Step Mom, Step Mom, Step Mom is similarly acute when it comes to commitment and the appeal of fantasy versus mundane reality. The play’s steady balance of kink, farce, and relationship drama is one of the best surprises of this theatrical season.
What, When, Where
Step Mom, Step Mom, Step Mom. By Jahna Ferron-Smith, directed by Matt Dickson. Through February 18, 2024, at the Proscenium at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street. (215) 568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.
The Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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