The Rafa Play, now playing at the Flea Theater’s new Tribeca home, is a meta comedy about playwright Peter Gil-Sheridan’s imagined romance with professional tennis player Rafael Nadal. Gil-Sheridan, played on-stage by Olli Haaskivi, acknowledges his dual roles as the show’s playwright and lead character from the start with an over-the-top glowing preamble (“Pulizer-prize winner, MacArthur Genius Award recipient, Presidential Medal of Freedom grantee, Nobel Laureate, and one-time finalist for the Ars Nova Play Group…”), and the navel-gazing never lets up. I don’t say this to be negative, I say it as a fact. This is a deeply self-involved show.
At first, the romance between Peter and Rafa (Juan Arturo) seems perfect. Rafa is a chiseled god who adores Peter. They travel the world together and have wild sex in fancy hotel rooms, and Peter gets his picture in the press, attending Rafa’s matches. Inevitably, though, problems emerge. Rafa’s mother Ana (Annie Henk) doesn’t like Peter and tries setting Rafa up with a female trainer, Maria (Megan Hill). Rafa’s butler Rogelio (Tommy Heleringer) has a weird hang-up about Peter. Rogelio seems to be plotting something, though it’s not clear what, and he behaves bizarrely when only Peter is watching.
However, nothing sabotages Rafa and Peter’s relationship more than Peter. He is insecure about his body and his performance in bed, constantly assuming the worst. He fears that Rafa will lose interest or realize he deserves someone different or better than Peter. To make things worse, Peter has stopped writing. He has nothing but time and leisure to feud with Ana and fixate on his own perceived shortcomings.
A neurotic writer self-sabotaging his relationship is a familiar story, explored again (and again, and again…) by writers like Woody Allen, but most of these stories have been heterosexual romances. This story hasn’t been told as often from the perspective of a gay man. Most of these stories also didn’t have freak rain-showers of tennis balls, Shakespearean-inspired murders, or saucy stray one-eyed cats. It is very funny, and these little touches make otherwise tired plot points feel original. It also helps that the cast is totally game for these outlandish scenarios, and they know how far to push it without turning these characters into total cartoons. The Rafa Play is my kind of romance: weird, queer, and unrequited. It’s not for everyone, but I had a damn good time.
The Rafa Play is running at the Flea Theater’s new Tribeca home (located at 20 Thomas Street), thru December 16. General admission tickets are $25, reserved seats are $35, and a “Pool Pass” including tickets for The Rafa Play, Washed Up on the Potomac, and Tania in the Getaway Van is $60. Tickets can be purchased in advance online via The Flea Theater and The Pool websites or by calling 212-352-3101.