There's a terrible moment of tremendous fear in the first five minutes of Say You Love Satan that you must force yourself to sit through for your own good: Andrew (Ben Nordstrom), a slightly nebbishy grad student, directly addresses the audience with a few words on Dostoevsky.
Through July 28 at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students and seniors). Call 314-289-4063 or visit www.hotcitytheatre.org.
And you think to yourself, "Wasn't this supposed to be a queer romantic comedy? What's with the literary allusions? Oh, crap. Is this going to be, you know, deep?"
Calm yourself. Andrew's giving you a glimpse of the esoteric mechanics that regulate what passes for his inner life, and yes, he thinks maybe a touch too much about dead Russian authors but Say You Love Satan is about the deadly little evils we perpetrate in the pursuit of happiness. And if anyone knows about the evils of happiness, it's the titans of Russian literature.
Better still, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasca is aware of how pretentious Andrew's introductory remarks could be. So his script quickly counters with the introduction of Jack (Tyler Vickers), a handsome tower of man who flirts by stripping off his shirt to reveal a chest that one could serve a large country breakfast on, if one were so inclined. Jack is certainly in the mood for breakfast in bed, and so with some clever banter, a bit of inappropriate touching and the promise of sticky carnal pleasures, Andrew and Jack embark on what Andrew's best friend Bernadette (Sarah Cannon) later terms this "gay erotic thriller."
Ah, that's better.
Director Annamaria Pileggi takes the "thriller" portion of that assessment to heart; Satan hums along briskly, aided in part by the theater-in-the-round stage. A few glass boxes on wheels serve as furniture, a dancer's pole in one corner denotes the nightclubs where Jack and Andrew cavort and the lights set in the floor provide the appropriate mood and tone. Pileggi, lighting designer Alan Chlebowski and the cast have blocked the movements excellently; everyone moves naturally and smoothly to their marks, making the uplighting work even as the cast turns to face all four corners. It's an intricate dance, and it never seems forced.
Jack, who we must note again, looks quite fabulous without a shirt and even better in a suit, stalks around with a predatory sensuality, as befits his nature as the Son of Satan. Yes, really. And the conceit works, largely because the script gives you no choice to deny it. Jack declares his pedigree to Andrew with the self-assured statement, "My father is the Devil." With barely a pause, Andrew asks, "Who's your mother?" to a huge laugh from the knowing audience (gay men and their mothers...). Andrew, analytical and detached from the real world thanks to his immersion in academia, accepts the existence of the Devil and the Devil's son easily. And he gleefully takes to the idea of screwing hot devil-spawn; by his own admission, Andrew's a little selfish and a little lazy, and Jack is diabolically charming. Vickers evokes Jack's manly charms with a ready smile that promises rough trade, even though he turns out to be a cuddler (a discovery that makes the buttoned-up Andrew laugh nervously, but with evident fondness for the strangeness of it all).
Andrew's surrender to temptation (have we mentioned the pecs? They're on frequent display, right above the six-pack!) is barely checked by the concern of his best friend, Bernadette. Cannon has imbued this pushy gamine with a salty tongue and a wounded heart; she's jealous of Andrew's romance because she has none of her own, but she also senses real menace in any congress with the Devil. Her misgivings have some merit, but Andrew is blind to the danger.
And that's where the Dostoevsky returns. Andrew paraphrases The Brothers Karamazov, noting that "nobody wants to think of themselves as evil." And yet Andrew abandons his friends, his quasi-boyfriend (the always excellent Rusty Gunther) and his own life in pursuit of what? Hot sex and the hint of danger. The devil is in the details, friend; is this bad behavior any less evil just because the sins are small?
It is this argument that frames the story, but it never overwhelms the play. Aguirre-Sacasca's script is shot through with plenty of humor, and the cast does a remarkable job of imparting the threat of eternal damnation without becoming preachy. Say You Love Satan is a gay romantic comedy with heart, but it's also concerned with your soul. And if you can ogle a mass of beefcake while improving your spiritual well-being, so much the better.