FIVE FLIGHTS * Written by Adam Bock * Directed by Kent Nicholson * Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, New York City, through February 22.

Adam Bock’s Five Flights features the single best gay male kiss I’ve ever seen onstage -- and trust me, I’ve seen plenty. It’s a long, long, juicy, passionate, open-mouthed smooch between Ed (the charismatically nerdy Jason Butler Harner) and Tom (the studly Matthew Montelongo) that builds huge tension in the theater, shifts just enough to let the audience laugh a little, then keeps on going. 

The kiss is only one step in a mating dance that Bock depicts in all its awkward, ambivalent glory. Ed is the play’s narrator, and the main thrust of the story is that he and his two siblings have to decide what to do with the aviary their recently deceased father had built as a tribute to his dead wife. Ed’s brother Bobby’s wife Jane (Joanna P. Adler) wants to sell the property to a housing developer. Ed’s sister Adele (Lisa Steindler) and her best friend Olivia (Alice Ripley) want the aviary to house Olivia’s bird-brained Church of the Fifth Day. That’s where Ed meets Tom, who’s attracted first to Olivia’s gospel (“I have a bird” is his first line) and then to Ed. They approach, they avoid, they date, they kiss, things look good…then Ed backs away because someone hurt him once and he doesn’t want to risk that again. (Anyone heard that story before?) Tom reluctantly accepts Ed’s wishes with some gentle advice: “Rejection bounces us out of our bodies, and we have to find a way back in.”

If it were only a portrait of an up-to-the-minute gay relationship, Five Flights would already be a winner. But it’s a lot more. It’s amazing how much Bock packs into a 90-minute play – hilarious character studies, inventive bits of writing, keen-eyed observations of life, swerves into wild theatricality. Bock is confident enough to switch from dialogue to direct address to dancing in a second. “Here we are. Different place. New moment. Same story.” And they’re off. Suddenly Tom and his gay-friendly teammate Andre (Kevin Karrick), dressed only in towels, are batting a shampoo bottle around a locker room with hockey sticks. Suddenly Adele, the good listener, has a ten-minute monologue. Kisses come out of nowhere, with varying results. Ultimately, Five Flights is a comedy about faith – in visions, in the rules, in the body. Most dangerous of all is faith in nothing.

Five Flights is a breakthrough for Bock, the 42-year-old Canadian who studied playwriting with Paula Vogel at Brown University and won a 2000 best-play award from Bay Area critics for Swimming in the Shallows. He’s found his ideal director in Kent Nicholson, whose inventive staging drives the play at screwball speed and elicits sensational performances from a strong cast. Ripley, best known for musicals, especially shines playing Olivia as a cross between a holy roller, Marilyn Monroe, and a chicken. Bock and company break all the rules of conventional playwriting with Five Flights, but fans of quirky, soulful comic playwrights like Craig Lucas and Harry Kondoleon will feel right at home.

The Advocate, March 2, 2004