The appeal of setting a play in a bar is obvious, even to a teetotaler like myself. Take a bunch of unhappy people, put them in an enclosed space, give everyone a magical elixir that makes them spill their darkest secrets, and presto: you’ve got a surefire recipe for compelling drama. Or at least, that’s what I thought before the opening night of April Ranger’s “Must Wash Hands.”
Ranger’s play focuses on the blossoming relationship between two unlikely partners. Ruta Montega (Daniela Gonzalez y Perez) is a working-class wisecracker who lifts chairs and mixes drinks at a bar in the South End of Boston. Lucy Vee (Rhiannon Guilfoyle) is a recent transplant from D.C. who operates her feminist sex blog “Yes, Oh My God, Yes” from the comfort of her own bathtub. The two fall for one another, but when disturbing allegations surface against Ruta’s best friend Gabe (Ahsan Ali), their fledgling relationship hits a snag as the two women are forced to pick sides and weigh their loyalties.
That’s great drama. Or rather, it would be great drama, if these allegations came up at any point before the last five minutes of the play. Unfortunately, the first hour of the play is a romantic comedy which is neither romantic nor comedic, and it has all the dramatic heft of a frappuccino. Whenever the show attempts to make a political point, as it does with a hamfisted reference to the Virginia transgender bathroom bill in the opening monologue, it comes out of nowhere. And worst of all, while Gonzalez and Guilfoyle do have chemistry, I never believed for an instant that their characters would ever fall for one another.
There are the seeds of a good play here. Ranger’s background is in slam poetry, and it shows: the monologues in “Must Wash Hands” are leaps and bounds above everything else in the script. Anna Strasser’s direction is fantastic, and the stage at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre is perfectly suited to double as a pub interior. The four-person cast gives great performances, even if Henry Nwaru (the best comedic actor at Brooklyn College right now, in my estimation) is wasted here in a minor role.
I might be being too hard here. As the playbill notes, this is certainly a timely play, coming in the era of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. Never before have we so urgently needed a play dealing with the fallout of sexual harassment and assault. I just wish “Must Wash Hands” was that play, and not a sanitized romcom.