Archive Review: Top & Bottom

From August 2007:

This provocatively titled Fringe show deals with an encounter between a submissive yet aggressive bondage bottom boy and a socially awkward leather top. Playwright Kevin Michael West has created the most sensitive and intelligent portrayal of kinky gay men I’ve seen on-stage – not that I’ve seen that many! More plays about kinky gay men, please!

While there are moments of Top and Bottom that are rife with sexual tension, it is perhaps most remarkable for an almost sentimental sweetness that arises between bottom Tommy (the suitably sassy and sexy David Smith) and top James (Mark Gaddis giving you comically khaki personality while wearing a harness). While James and Tommy occasionally spark with chemistry, most of what we see is a series of misfires and miscommunications: James’s clumsiness is a turnoff for Tommy, and Tommy’s pushiness doesn’t really work for James.

It turns out, though, that these surface problems mask deeper conflicts in both men, which they work out during breaks in their bondage session. They start over at the very end of the play, and you get the sense that the fireworks are just beginning. West skillfully communicates the psychological complexities that lead men to explore the darker side of their sexuality. He also gets the pain of being stigmatized for being kinky, and the profound liberation and camaraderie that can be found with someone who shares your fetishes.

The cast are admirably committed and give compelling performances; Smith in particular makes Tommy’s playful eroticism titillatingly palpable. Top and Bottom isn’t the most earth-shaking play you’ll ever see, but it does a great job of portraying the achingly vulnerable moments that happen in any sexual encounter. That it does so with a light touch and an abundant sense of humor marks West as a playwright to watch.

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