‘Slugs and Kicks’ falls flat despite its charms

Courtesy PhotoRoommates: Robert Kittler

There’s an undeniable charm to Theatre Rhinoceros artistic director John Fisher’s latest work, “Slugs and Kicks.” Set in the 1980s, it’s a sweet coming-of-age comedy, rather than specifically a coming-out-of-the-closet play, as one might expect from our oldest LGBT theater.

Narrator Rory (Ben Calabrese), a virginal college student at the mythical Purgatoria State University in “a long, Western state,” is studying acting.

An upper-middle-class kid, he’s unsure of his sexual identity, permanently angry at his neglectful father and living with two roommates: Anis (Alexandra Izdebski), also a drama student, and stoned slacker Marty (a hilariously deadpan Robert Kittler).

The emotionally confused Rory is the object of more than his fair share of amorous attention.

Anis pursues him to an embarrassing (and not quite believable) degree despite his clearly stated lack of interest; Jerry (Zachary Isen), the flamboyantly gay, alcoholic, grad-student director of the play they’re both in, tries to seduce him, the discarded girlfriend (Asali Echols) of one of Rory’s castmates (Nicholas Trengove) woos him and … well, you’ll find out.

Fisher, who also directs, wisely presents the play on an almost bare stage, placing the focus on the characters and their intricate relationships as they pair off, disconnect and reconnect during rehearsals for the student play.

Unfortunately, Fisher is less successful with his actors, some of whom are actually still college students and simply not ready for prime-time stage appearances.

For the most part, Fisher fails to draw emotionally deep performances from them, which is what the play requires. Sexual attractions lack fire; angst, tears and drunken rants come across as artificial; some actors have awkward and/or distractingly disconnected body language; and Trengove’s British accent needs improvement.

Still, it’s easy to empathize with the characters, most of whom feel alone and afloat at various times. Fisher intersperses a few songs; amusingly, the actors sing “Edelweiss” as a group warm-up for rehearsals in their college play.

There are enough comic asides and theater inside jokes to keep the swift-moving, 90-minute play entertaining. “I know this is a gay play and everyone thinks I’m going to come out of the closet in the end,” Rory says early on. And Jerry informs his cast that the rehearsal process will be “real Actors Studio crap.”

“Slugs and Kicks” is promising, but with the uneven cast, it feels like a high school effort.

Slugs and Kicks

Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros

  • Where: Thick House, ?1695 18th St., S.F.
  • When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: $15 to $30
  • Contact: (415) 552-4100, ?www.therhino.org

artsentertainmentJohn FisherTheatre Rhinoceros

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