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Sometimes, It Just Has To Be

There’s gender. And then there’s biology. In Isabelle, the two are at war. That’s where “F2M” focuses in Patricia Wettig’s play in progress about a girl, wanting to be a boy. F2M means female to male. And that means counseling, drugs, surgery, isolation and a risky life at the edge of the tribe as Isabelle’s father, Clarence (actor Ken Olin, playwright Wettig’s husband), sees it. Clarence is a vivid, fleshy character on the stage at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater. A Hollywood figure, he is rich, sexually adroit and creative. We’ve got Supermale, here, and he’s dangerous because he will do anything to get what he wants. And what he wants is Isabelle, not Parker, as she has renamed herself at college. Clarence is at odds with the playwright who says in many ways that gender, the cultural aspect of sexuality, trumps biology, its physical side, every time. Wettig’s stage directions refer to Isabelle/Parker as “he.” And Parker (Keira Keeley) does look like an 18-year-old boy. Keeley plays him as a nervy, bouncy adolescent. He has cropped hair and baggy pants and a shambly, jumpy air. He also has Lucy (Phoebe Strole), a girlfriend who cooks for him, sleeps with him and backs the idea of sexual reassignment for him. (Yes. The language is oddly bureaucratic, as though sexual reassignment were a procedure conducted at the DMV.) It is Lucy, the facilitator, who binds Parker’s naked upper body in a long pale cloth, like a bandage, to smother her breasts before leaving the apartment. And it is Lucy who hosts the dinner, bringing together her mother Linda Lou (Deirdre O’Connell), Clarence; Parker’s mother, Ali (Talia Balsam); and Parker for a clash with the titan. Clarence behaves badly, like the bully he is, browbeating everyone who defies him. It’s biology (personified by brutish Clarence), bad; versus gender (the culturally adept but somewhat damaged Ali, Linda Lou and Lucy), good. But we have to wonder, given assertive and powerful Clarence, if sexual reassignment is not really such a bad idea. For women. The dinner party strives to sum things up: Along with beef stew and red wine, Wettig serves up a detailed primer on transgender, and we get to the big question. “You’re gay, right? You’re a lesbian?” Clarence says to Lucy. No. Her relationship with Parker is heterosexual, she says. A headspinner for Clarence. Interestingly, Parker and all the women are agreeable, easy to like, but the only vivid character, here, is Clarence. We know who he is. We know what he wants. It’s hard to sympathize with his tactics, but not his motives. As Clarence says, “It isn’t all that easy calling your daughter ‘him.’ ” And it isn’t all that easy to watch someone you love change her life so irrevocably, and maybe dangerously. Sometimes, though, you have no choice in the matter. Sometimes power is not enough. Sometimes it just has to be. “F2M” runs on the mainstage of Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater through July 10. For tickets, call 845-437-5599, or go to phtboxoffice@vassar. edu.

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