About halfway through David Adjmi’s 3C, Brad (Jake Silbermann) confesses to his new roommate, Connie (Anna Chlumsky), that he is gay. She tells him she has “these same feelings,” but she thinks he’s talking about being traumatized in the Vietnam War. Connie, who compulsively seeks the approval of men but is also terrified of them, was once raped, and thinks she has found a kindred spirit in Brad. The scene is brilliant—it borrows a standard trope from situation comedies, even hitting some of the same notes and same jokes we would see in an episode of Friends, but is instead covering a tragic subject. We laugh because Brad and Connie misunderstand each other, and yet Connie is right in identifying with him: they both walk around with a terrible secret that corrupts any chance they have at happiness.
The relationship to sitcoms is not accidental. (In fact, the premise is mostly lifted from Three’s Company, the title a winking allusion to that ‘seventies staple.) Mr. Adjmi’s play begins with Connie and Linda (Hannah Cabell) discussing beauty, love, and how to make rent. The jokes are frequent but not particularly funny, fired at us with such speed that we can barely keep up. The effect is alienating—we recognize the writing and the setup, but there is a hostility to the performance; we are not meant to feel comfortable in our familiarity. The cast is rounded out by Mrs. Wicker (Kate Buddeke), their depressed landlady, Mr. Wicker (Bill Buell), her perverted husband, and Terry (Eddie Cahill), their womanizing neighbor who half-walks, half-dances as if “Stayin’ Alive” is constantly playing in his head. But instead of providing light laughs, these characters each bring an insidiousness into 3C. Mrs. Wicker will say things like, “I like to eat, sometimes I eat compulsively, no I’m kidding,” and follow it with a piercing, machine-gun laugh that leaves no doubt as to whether or not she’s kidding. Mr. Wicker, the only one who really knows that Brad is gay, spends his time in their room leering and wagging his tongue at the poor boy, while quietly but violently molesting Linda when the two are left alone. Meanwhile, Terry is oblivious that Brad is in love with him. He bullies him into double dating, playfully humps him, and calls him “faggot.”
The result is a first-rate play that digs its nails into our motives for watching comedy. In the final scene of Twelfth Night, Malvolio, the brunt of many of that play’s jokes, bursts into a wedding celebration to declare, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” It’s a sobering moment, one that reminds us that this happiness has come at a price. 3C has at least three Malvolios, whose manic reenactments of television fluff have devastating consequences.
Though Mr. Cahill steals all his scenes as Mr. Good Times—and Mr. Buell is so good that his creepiness leaves us squirming in our seats—it is the three central performances that hold the play together. Mr. Silbermann, who is the most physically vulnerable—at various times he appears naked, in a towel, and in a dress—has the look of a boy who has lost his mother, and he regurgitates the clichés of his time (he knows he is a pervert, he knows he can “fix” his homosexuality) with a sincerity that is heartbreaking. Ms. Cabell masks her unhappiness with an arresting, toothy grin, and Ms. Chlumsky does an excellent job of balancing the bimbo blonde type that Connie is based on with the real humanity in her character.
There is a game that is popular between Linda and Connie called “Faces.” Each person takes a turn trying to imitate various emotions and attitudes, from “anxious” to the more complicated “carefree with an undercurrent of fanaticism.” When they first play “Faces” with Brad, Connie pushes Linda to try “anguish with an undercurrent of sexiness,” knowing that Linda is particularly touchy about her physical appeal. After attempting the face, Linda bursts into tears and flees the room. “This is why I love ‘Faces,’ ” says Connie in perfect deadpan. It is also, according to Mr. Adjmi, why we love comedy.