Here are three basic rules of maintaining a healthy sexual relationship: 1) Don't have sex in the bathroom of the Olive Garden or TGI Fridays; 2) Don't have sex with your church pastor; and 3) Don't have a threesome with your lover and your stalker. Okay, so maybe these rules aren't exactly Cosmo-approved, but they would've done the characters in "Different Animals" a lot of good.
Set in the town of Spartanburg, S.C., "Different Animals" shows how the lives of four people become entangled through a couple of sexy circumstances.
Jessica Tarver is stuck in a marriage of convenience to a man she isn't really in love with. Instead, she falls in love with the young pastor with whom she is having an affair. Pastor Will alternates between spouting sermons about Jesus and checking into motel rooms with her (or just the local Olive Garden bathroom stall).
Meanwhile, Jessica's husband Leo gets increasingly closer with his coworker, Molly, a manic, obsessive, unstable woman with a talent for stalking and computer hacking. As Molly tries to seduce Leo and become closer to the Tarver household, Jessica tries to figure out how to deal with her unexpected pregnancy with Will's child.
Soon Jessica's affair is revealed, Molly moves in, and the Tarvers become involved in a sexual living arrangement that would make Joseph Smith -- and a good part of the state of Utah -- proud.
If this plot seems hilariously bizarre, that's because it is. And "Different Animals" doesn't let you forget it. Fast-paced in its action, dialogue and scene changes, the show does not miss a step; the pacing keeps the show engaging, and, like Jessica, the audience is swiftly picked up and moved through the sequence of odd, comical events and left wondering, "How did I get here?" Don't worry too much about that, though; just enjoy the ride.
Surrounded by a hypocritical pastor, a stalker and a simple-minded husband guilty of his own past chain-restaurant infidelity, Jessica seems to be the only character with a modicum of sense, but still gets dragged through the muck of an unsatisfying affair, a failing marriage and an odd ménage à trois, or "thruple," as Molly calls it.
Living in the opposite mental and emotional extreme is Molly, played by "Different Animals" playwright Abby Rosebrock. Rosebrock does not seem content with just writing such a quirky, humorous play, because she also delivers the humor first-hand. She brings flawless comedic timing and an endless supply of energy to her fabulous performance of the off-kilter Molly.
Perpetually bubbly and bluntly honest (except when she's telling stories about shark-centric tragedies), Molly simultaneously brings warmth, absurdity, humor and, every so often, the faintest touch of sorrow to the play. But that's not to say the other characters get left in the jaws of the sharks; Molly's character certainly is a show in itself, but her interactions with the other three characters are what really rounds out her character and the play as a whole.
These characters, while certainly flawed, are not unlikeable. Molly and Jessica share the same sense of loneliness at the core. Leo is well-meaning but confused about what he needs to be happy. Will tries to do good but makes plenty of bad decisions. Rosebrock manages to create a play that revels in the flaws of its characters without making them appear dastardly or overly tragic.
Relatedly, it's easy to overlook the heavy subject matter: extramarital affairs, questions of morality, pregnancy, abortion, unconventional relationships, conventional relationships, emotional dependency, etc., because while the themes are all there clear to see, Rosebrock uses humor as an effective and unique buffer.
As the supermarket pantheons of gossip magazines and the Dan Savages of the world have proved, relationships, especially threesomes, can get serious and messy. Fortunately, this play, with its comedy and kookiness, is an entirely different animal.
"Different Animals" runs through May 26 at the Cherry Lane Theatre Studio, 38 Commerce St. For more information or tickets, call 212-989-2020 or visit www.cherrylanetheatre.org.