Here in still-too-Puritan, still-pretty-heteronormative America, we like to pretend sex can be cleanly separated from the rest of life. We imagine that erotic energy can be neatly contained in the sanctioned spaces of romance, without unpredictably surfacing at work and at school, among friends and family members. That’s ludicrous, of course, as Erin Markey demonstrates in their new piece, Singlet, directed by Jordan Fein and playing at the Bushwick Starr through June 12. A two-hander featuring Markey and longtime collaborator Emily Davis, Singlet is a rigorous inquiry into the erotics of nonromantic relationships, acted like a Meisner exercise and staged like a contact sport.
Dressed in spandex wrestling uniforms (the singlets of the title), Markey and Davis grunt and grapple their way through a series of vignettes that are connected less by narrative than by the insistent reappearance of sexual energy in places it’s not supposed to be. A less insightful artist would realize this idea by staging actual sex scenes — assignations on a teacher’s desk, groping in a department store dressing room. But Markey is after something more interesting than all that. A confrontation between a surly student and a fed-up teacher turns threatening and aggressively flirtatious by turns. (“Fuck you and the big yellow school bus you rolled in here on,” says the teacher, to which the student retorts, “You wanna drive that bus, don’t you, miss.”) In a hospital room, a mother and daughter care for a dying grandmother, while groans of ecstasy filter in through open windows, erupting from a new direction each time the confused caretakers try to block them out. A father and daughter, both wearing fake mustaches, argue about chores and extracurricular activities, then shotgun beers together and begin to slow dance.
Maybe these are all different people experiencing the same thing. Or maybe they’re all dimensions of a single intimate friendship. Looking neatly symmetrical in their matchy-matchy athletic wear and tight pigtails, Markey and Davis deliver most of their dialogue inches from each other’s mouths, as if they’re about to kiss, or fight, or both. Carolyn Mraz’s blindingly white set evokes fashion shoots and — with a white lion logo stenciled on its floor — the ghost of a high school gym. There’s also dancing, rapping, and a stuffed bear who plays the University of Michigan fight song.
Singlet coheres because of Markey’s articulate, generous writing, which — in this and other works — poignantly refracts the experiences of being American, and female, and queer, and in love (not necessarily in that order). Their plays abound with figures and images from the landscape of suburban, public school Americana — coaches, moms, bored teens — remixed in associative but sharp turns of narrative and phrasing. (The admonishment “Wipe the dope smog out of your eyes and check the trophy case” is both poetically allusive and precisely anchored in a time and place.) Markey’s works are often received as strange or idiosyncratic — the 2016 A Ride on the Irish Cream, for instance, surprised some spectators with the story of a young Midwestern woman in love with a pontoon boat who was also a horse. But life is strange, Markey observes, and so is love, and as queer artists in particular have long demonstrated, writing about it with precision requires relinquishing assumptions about what’s weird. If that sounds like a smart idea, grab a Gatorade and head to the Starr.