Devin A. Cunningham plays Baby Boy in Theatre Rhinoceros’ world premiere of Kheven LaGrone’s “Pillow Talk.” (Courtesy Tanika Bapatiste)

Devin A. Cunningham plays Baby Boy in Theatre Rhinoceros’ world premiere of Kheven LaGrone’s “Pillow Talk.” (Courtesy Tanika Bapatiste)

‘Pillow Talk’: a real encounter between two Black gay men

Actors shine in Theatre Rhino’s 1995-set premiere

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A far cry from the 1959 Doris Day/Rock Hudson romantic comedy of the same title, local playwright Kheven LaGrone’s two-hander, “Pillow Talk,” a (virtual) world- premiere commission by Theatre Rhinoceros, covers quite a bit of ground in a mere 75 minutes.

And, as performed live on Zoom under the direction of Tanika Baptiste, that 75 minutes is almost enough time for the two characters — the insouciant, round-faced hustler Baby Boy (Devin A. Cunningham) and the older, wiser Chuck (a buff Ramond Thomas in shades) — to change and develop convincingly.

Set in 1995, the play mostly takes place in a car in Oakland, presumably toward the end of the crack epidemic. Chuck is cruising by to pick up the feckless Baby Boy for their usual quickie.

Chuck’s on the down-low; as we (and Baby Boy) find out fairly soon, he’s a cop — the chief, in fact — and in the closet, understandably worried about his job.

Things begin playfully—Baby Boy, in a hoodie and mask, teases Chuck by pretending to hold him up. “You shoulda seen the look on your face!” he chortles.

Chuck is not amused.

The atmosphere is chaotic, with street fights erupting in the neighborhood. Amid that, Chuck and Baby Boy dicker over payment (Baby Boy wants $40, Chuck says he’ll give him $20) and what music to play on the car radio (Chuck wants jazz, Baby Boy rap). Sex, represented by a blurry, artsy video, is quick; what Chuck really wants is to talk, to get to know Baby Boy better—“pillow talk.”

For that, Baby Boy charges an extra $10.

As the night goes on, they do indeed get to know each other better, and their back-and-forth banter is, for most part, quite real and at times funny. Both have had plenty of hard times as gay Black men, which they reveal to each other, and none of it’s surprising, but in the actors’ stellar performances — in the way they listen and relate to each other — it feels authentic.

As their relationship deepens, it changes in ways that also feel authentic.

Still, there are missteps in the production: A series of abstract erotic videos interrupts the flow of the dialogue and adds nothing to the story; a particularly repetitive one seems to go on forever. And, as seen on Zoom, some of the action, like an attack by thugs, is confusing. In general, the technicalities need attention.

As the characters reveal, little by little, their vulnerabilities, and as intimacy develops, “Pillow Talk” cries out for less (maybe no) video and more, and even deeper, dialogue. (LaGrone adapted a longer piece for this shorter digital presentation.) These two actors could meet any challenges the playwright throws at them.

“Pillow Talk” streams live and on demand through 11:45 p.m. June 25; tickets are $5 to $25. Go to therhino.org.

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