Societal Shifts Examined In WHAT's Fast-paced, Witty 'Empaths'

By: Ellen Petry Whalen

Ron Komora and Jackie Davis in “The Empaths” At WHAT. MICHAEL AND SUZ KARCHMER

Seeing the world premiere of a play is not an everyday experience. It can be exciting, especially when the brand-new work is well-written and timely. Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater is known for cultivating new plays by giving playwrights the time and space to workshop their ideas, and WHAT’s stellar world-premiere comedy “The Empaths” is a testament to that process.

The irreverent play is co-written by John Markus and Rebecca Bazell. Markus premiered his comedy “The Fabulous Lipitones” at WHAT in 2014, and has written for a number of sitcoms including “Taxi” and “The Cosby Show,” while Bazell is a first-time playwright and a well-regarded journalist.

Celine is a 30-something millennial who is committed to therapy and self-analysis. When she happens to meet Lichen, an over-the-top SNAG (sensitive New Age Guy), Celine believes she has found “the one,” and she’s taken in by his concern for others. He explains that as a socially conscious hedge-fund investor, he always asks one question before investing: “Will it help the world?”

Wanting to start off on the right foot, she tricks Lichen into having their first date in couples counseling. Lichen is surprisingly intrigued by the idea, and with the blessing of the therapist, it is decided the fledgling couple will commit to six weeks of counseling, without having any contact outside of their therapy.

Finding the perfect mate isn’t Celine’s only obsession. As Daddy’s little girl, she is struggling to accept her father’s recent marriage to Diane, who believes it’s time for Celine to stand on her own.

All the characters have a thin veneer of normalcy, but it doesn’t take much for their quirks to show through, which is what makes the show so entertaining.

Kate Margalite plays up Celine’s intensity and need to control things, which adds a comical edge to the show and moves the storyline forward. She talks rapid fire and couldn’t be more delighted by Lichen’s extreme political correctness especially regarding women’s rights, and that he isn’t “an alpha male.”

Played by Sam Perwin, Lichen is a walking study in gender neutrality. His stories about his bizarre upbringing are hilarious. He tells how he was raised to be free of judgment on a gender-neutral commune. He was even denied an Erector Set as a boy because “the name was too gendered.” If his first name isn’t absurd enough (there is a big explanation about it in the show), his last name is hyphenated twice because, not surprisingly, both of his parents’ names were hyphenated. Celine practically swoons when Lichen shares that he plans on taking his wife’s surname when he marries to help right the wrongs of patriarchal oppression.

As Celine’s father, Ron Komora plays Barry with a touch of used-car salesman, when peddling his high-tech bidet design, and lovesick puppy when smitten with his sexy younger wife.

Jackie Davis is calm and collected as the ambitious Diane, who is determined to subtly deter her new husband’s need to spoil his daughter.

As the high-priced therapist, Charles Weinstein receives many laughs with his constant stream-of-conscious asides during therapy sessions, showing how his mind constantly wanders.

Scenic and lighting designer Chrisopher Ostrom has created a unique and striking set with its stark, white-tiled walls, limited white furniture, and four backlit doors. The minimalist set has a clinical feel, as if the whole show is one big social experiment. Impressively, between scene changes, a wall of white tiles descends from the ceiling, with the action continuing in front of it, without even an intermission, keeping the show’s energy high.

Director Jeffry George has created a fast-paced and witty show that playfully magnifies our society’s current shifting mores, and how these changes affect the dynamics of our different relationships.

“The Empaths”
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Through Aug. 19
Information and reservations: 508-349-9428