Leo and Samantha are Team Fat/Gay on stage now at Stage West

That special friend

Stage West puts gay/straight friendships centerstage

RICH LOPEZ | Staff writer

Stage West continues its run of the tragi-comedy I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart through July 9. Written by Morgan Gould, the play centers on Leo and Samantha, two 30-something-best-friend struggling writers who live together and face the challenges of adulting, careers and the introduction of someone else into their unique, perfect mix.

He’s gay. She’s fat. The characters refer to themselves at Team Fat/Gay. What transpires, though, is a funny and heartbreaking and insightful look at the valuable friendship between a gay guy and a straight gal.

“All of us have a friendship like this,” director Jenna Burnett said by phone. “I have several gay men who are my close friends.”

And many a gay male has had that (at least) one bestie who’s their cis-gal-pal (or otherwise) where the two exist in their own world with a velvet rope at the entrance before anyone else can enter.

Burnett and her cast cultivated this deep friendship over the course of weeks of rehearsal before the show made its regional premiere on June 15. She said that, thankfully, her cast made that easy.

Ellen Eberhardt plays Samantha (Sam for short), and Ryan Michael Friedman plays Leo. The two said being onstage together felt like they really had known each other since high school.

Olivia Cinquepalmi plays the interloper in Team Fat/Gay who causes friction between Leo and Sam.

“They didn’t know each other at all before the show,” Burnett said of the castmembers. “It was exciting to watch them develop the characters, and they became fast friends in real life.”

Burnett wanted the actors to focus on one thing — and it wasn’t the comedy of the show. With his scene partner, Friedman found it easy to dive in under Burnett’s direction .

“It was quite easy to be open and vulnerable because Ellen and I both knew we needed that,” Friedman said by phone. “The whole experience would be more enjoyable if we got to that point.”

“That love has to be there,” Burnett said. “Sam and Leo’s love is so deep, so when the friendship is threatened, you have to feel it. They are so fiercely bonded.”

When queer people often find their one close friend or chosen family, that love runs wonderfully and painfully deep. Their lives become so entwined with each other, but sometimes one grows away. Burnett talks about how that part of friendship is never easy.

“When paths fork off from each other, it’s so traumatic,” she said. “These characters latch onto each other, but it’s hard when the other is moving on or forward.”

Tropes can be predictable or overdone. If this is a trope, this dynamic of queer/straight relationships is nonetheless special because so many LGBTQ+ people can identify with it. Who doesn’t have a Grace to their Will or a Stanford to their Carrie?
Oops. Friedman actually.

“Not in that sense with a straight female, but I have had those friendships in the past where we were really close or connected,” the actor said by phone. “But in a weird way, that lends to the heartbreaking aspect where we have to learn to move on.”

Both Burnett and Friedman found a connection to the play that spoke to them differently than other shows have. The director and actor talked about how, in Gould’s story, they each saw a bit of their own identity unapologetically onstage.

“I read an interview with Morgan, who wrote it, where she said she never saw herself on stage as a fat woman. I am a fat woman, and I realized the same, which got me excited about directing this,” Burnett said.

Friedman found something similar with his character Leo. He’s played roles where he found he could zhuzh up his characters a bit. But this time, it was different.

“When I got cast, I was excited because this is the first character who was actually gay,” he said. “I could make a choice with past characters, but Leo being gay is pertinent to the story, and I’m glad to be part of that expression.”

The play has both a reality and hyperreality to it. The latter is thanks to Natalie Rose Mabry’s impressive and extensive set that recalls the feel of a sitcom. But the reality of this show is that everyone has that one — maybe more than one if you’re lucky — friendship that’s a bit deeper than all the rest. And I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart celebrates that familiar and special queer experience.

“There are levels to the way certain groups of people are represented, and this is such a breath of fresh air to work on and watch,” Burnett said. “There’s value here in recognizing both gay/queer people and fat and plus-sized people. But then also, it shows that special bond between a gay man and his straight woman friend.”

For tickets, visit StageWest.org.