The Theater of Relationships

New shows take on love and relationships at Arena Stage.

Lately, I must be on a quest for culture of all varieties—so long as it pertains to dating and romance.

There was my viewing of the Bravo reality show centered on men and online dating, the spoken word event in which Washingtonians told their love stories. Then, this past week I went on a date to D.C. theater company Arena Stage, with one of the play previews honing in on modern-day relationships. Like I said, culture of all varieties.

The guy who took me to Arena, I’m not quite sure about yet. He’s unquestionably and undeniably nice, considerate and intellectual. He even gave me a small present, something that has not happened in years and never after just one date. Is he a partner in romance, though? That remains to be seen. When it comes to selecting and arranging creative dates, though, this guy absolutely succeeds.

The particular show was part of The Kogod Cradle Series. What that means is that, rather than a full-length production, we witnessed ADD theater. Over the course of two hours the audience saw 20 minutes of three plays-in-progress and then heard from the playwright for each about what they hoped to do with the characters and last-minute adjustments to what we viewed. As one of the managers explained it, “You show your work as you’re trying to figure out what it even is.” It was amazing behind-the-scenes access of a product far from done.

Maybe that rawness is what appealed to me.

One work that night, called “Nexus,” by writer Danielle Mohlman particularly held my attention. It was a love story in the vein of a “500 Days of Summer,” which is to say it elicited laughter, pity and sadness wrapped up in one package.

The rapid-fire scenes gave a glimpse into the dynamic between M, the man, and W, the women (you can probably make out the logic of the character name) M and W are, we learn quickly, in an intimate situation. They hang out, have sex and banter.

Yet W constantly reminds M—and the audience—that “this is not a relationship.” She says it often and with emphasis, almost forcing herself to believe this.

But this isn’t some case of unrequited romance. The scenes are fascinating because of the constant power shifts that are reminiscent (sorry, W) of how relationships really work. In one instant, W is showing up, literally and figuratively, for M at a bar when he’s in need. In another she’s pulling away while he wants them to get closer. Push. Pull. Joy. Testiness. Emotions run rampant.

Tender moments happen when M and W go on what I can only refer to as dates. The very first time they’re together on stage the pseudo-couple is sitting at the back of the Lincoln Memorial watching the planes descend upon Reagan National Airport and playing a game where the two try to predict which airline the planes belong to.

Sadness and heartbreak are certainly players, too. During a disagreement M is ready to let things slide. Meanwhile, W wants to fight. “I just want to yell about this a while,” His calm demeanor angers her more. They can’t agree about even when they should agree and when not to.

I say all of this not to give away a play (which, in reality, I couldn’t do if I tried, since this one is still in flux and could be rewritten entirely) but to relay the way in which the scenes demonstrate how complex dating has become. This, the playwright captures, in my mind.

More often than not, hybrid relationships are the ones in existence. They could start as attractions, physical manifestations. Maybe feelings become involved. Technology is thrown in. One person’s more invested than the other. Then it all switches. Pairings ebb and flow, go from friendships to meetings of lovers and then back in waves.

It’s a lot to keep track of and navigate.

For all of this confusion, the female character in “Nexus” expresses the way that I feel to a tee—when she admits to resembling a child more so than an adult. “What is an adult supposed to be anyway?”

Beats me.