There’s a scene midway through the misbegotten new romantic drama Phoenix that suggests what might have been. Our would-be young lovers are in the desert outside that Arizona city, and James (James Wirt) is playfully suggesting to Sue (Julia Stiles) that he might just be a time traveler from the future who headed back to the present to find her because ”women from this era have a reputation for being a little easy.”
It’s actually a charming little exchange, the sort of whimsical banter that you can imagine might make up the mythology of a real couple. It also hints at a potential sci-fi twist for the play that I honestly wish that playwright Scott Organ had embraced — and pushed further. Because aside from that scene, his duo seems about as removed from reality as any star-crossed time travelers you’re likely to encounter on SyFy. Only a full dose of magic realism could redeem this limp and formulaic material.
The main problem rests with Sue, who is less a character than a young man’s projection of ultimate female inscrutability. She makes no sense, flitting from scene to scene only to prop up the earnestness of James’ borderline stalkerish efforts to woo her. The only reason we identify with her at all is due to the considerable talents of Julia Stiles. What does she have to do to endear herself to the audience, stand on her head? Well, she does just that — in a full yoga routine conducted while supposedly having a phone conversation with James, yet another of the show’s many absurdities.
Speaking of which, director Jennifer Delia awkwardly maneuvers her two characters about the small stage of Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre in the most unnaturalistic ways; they stand or sit or walk around (or do the downward dog) with no apparent rhyme or reason. Note: If a couple meets at a bar, gets up to dance, and then returns to their seats, the guy would never, ever, ever plop himself in the chair where the woman has left her bag (and her drink) — and the woman wouldn’t let him. Unless, of course, guys from the future don’t go in for social graces. C