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[Porto]

Kate Benson’s new play about a trendy bar in Brooklyn, its disparate denizens, and its lonely heroine who is looking for love will please some, bore others.

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Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel and Jorge Cordova in a scene from Kate Benson’s “[Porto]” (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: three people walk into a bar where they are known by the drinks they order. Only in Kate Benson’s new play [Porto], the unnamed bar is in a gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn, and is defined as a “boushy bar,” a portmanteau word made up of bourgeois and douchey. We know that because it serves “serious food, serious beer, serious wine, serious spirits.” And what of the story the play tells? Like an episode of Seinfeld, Friends or Girls, it will probably please Millennials most, those who are living the life of spending evenings in trendy bars to find companionship. The second play this year following Miles for Mary to transfer from Brooklyn’s Bushwick Starr to Manhattan, [Porto] is now at the WP Theater for an Off Broadway run.

The characters are “Porto,” who used to order this Portuguese wine, a lonely, bookish woman with an image problem and no partner, her friend “Dry Sac” (named for a rather out-of-date sherry), who to make matters worse for Porto is a ten (if one can still use that sexist scale), and newcomer to the bar, “Hennepin,” “a hot guy” whose drink of choice is beer of that name. The staff is known by their jobs: Doug the Bartender, is a “foodie,” one who knows what is good for you and what isn’t, and serves foie gras and venison, as well as snacks of fried chickpeas and jerky popcorn. He will rather officiously steer you away from lame choices. Raphael the Bartender is a really nice guy who lusts after intellectual women. And what do these millennials talk about? Food, drink, books and relationships. But which one will the hot guy go home with?

Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel, Noel Joseph Allain and Jorge Cordova in a scene from Kate Benson’s “[Porto]” (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Among the play’s novelties include a Chorus of Dumb Bunnies who can only be seen by Porto and who give her advice on how to obtain a man. Later in the play, Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem show up to give advice to Porto on not selling herself short. Oh yes, another gimmick is a narrator (voiced live by the author) who lets us know what is going through the heroine’s head, including recipes and foods to avoid to lose weight. Director Lee Sunday Evans, who won a joint Obie for Benson’s A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes in 2015 is well attuned to this material and the performances are all of a piece. However, she cannot keep the play from seeming pretentious even when it is intended as satiric.

The acting style suits the material but isn’t memorable. Julia Sirna-Frest’s Porto is rather bland, the most interesting thing about her is the thoughts that run through her head voiced by Benson. As Leah Karpel’s Dry Sac is drunk most of the time we see her, there isn’t much revealed about her character. As Hennepin, Jorge Cordova is made to seem rather tentative and insecure, willing to change his mind as soon as Doug the Bartender criticizes one of his choices. Noel Joseph Allain’s performance as Doug must be satiric as he comes off as totally obnoxious (why does anyone show up at this bar to be insulted?) while Ugo Chukwu’s Raphael is almost too good to be true.

Julia Sirna-Frest and Jorge Cordova in a scene from Kate Benson’s “[Porto]” (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Kristin Robinson’s detailed working bar setting is a revelation but as darkly lit by Amith Chandrashaker one often has to squint to see the actors. This may be verisimilitude but it is counter-productive. Kate Marvin’s sound design begins the play with popular songs which set the mood, while Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes immediately telegraph the personalities of each character.

Kate Benson’s [Porto] (the title refers to the voice in the heroine’s head) will please die-hard feminists most who will be glad to hear the play’s messages spoken from the stage. However, many of the rest of us will be forgiven if thinking the play trades in platitudes and is overly derivative. We have met all these people – and their problems – before. The play’s gimmicks may either strike you as novel and fresh or as tired and trite. The play opens with a lengthy monologue  describing an elaborate recipe for making your own sausage. Is that what Brooklynites are doing these days? Could be we are out of the loop.

Porto (extended through March 4, 2018)

WP Theater & The Bushwick Starr, in association with New Georges

WP Theater, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.wptheater.org

Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (497 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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