Good chemistry can be hard to find.
They say love can be hard to find in our modern times, and queer love, even harder. Heck, even just finding a good connection with someone can be nigh impossible, with the fleeting nature of dating apps and the culture of one-night stands that pervades the community. How then, do you behave when you finally get a chance to go farther than you think?
That’s the premise of Theo Chen’s new play Cyril & Michael, marking the second production of new company Bridging The Gap, as it highlights new voices in the local theatre scene. Directed by Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Cyril & Michael follows its titular characters (played by Ezra Jazlan Kamal and Peter Zazzali) as they navigate their would-be bond over a single night, slightly awkward, slightly intrigued, and altogether unsure how exactly to approach this hook-up turned something more.
Cyril & Michael gets past its initial set-up quickly, with Cyril leaving the club after responding to the furious pings of Grindr, and finding himself alone in a hotel room with Michael. The contrast between the two men is stark – Cyril is a racially ambiguous NSF twink, flighty, immature, giggly and with his entire life ahead of him, ready and very available. Michael, on the other hand, is a much older Caucasian man from abroad, more composed but aware of his limited shelf life in the gay meat market, if at all.
Their interactions at first are awkward and shy, cautious as they confirm each other’s identities, before settling their nerves with a drink. As the conversation continues, they begin to surprise each other with how much their expectations are subverted – Michael knows far more about Singapore than one might assume, while Cyril, stripping and on the bed, is far more afraid and inexperienced than he lets on, leading the two to delay their physical intimacy.
What follows is an attempt to get to know each other better, as they poke and prod with questions. Michael is fascinated by this Zoomer, so confidently able to strut in his mother’s heels, while Cyril reveals his unhealthy obsession with Call Me By Your Name. Much to his surprise, when Michael puts on the classic song ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’, Cyril begins to get his groove on, despite it not being from his era. Time goes by, and they begin to reveal their vulnerabilities to each other, with Cyril’s anxieties presenting themselves, and Michael opening up about his ex.
Cyril & Michael is so frustrating to watch because amidst all the potential the story has, Theo Chen’s writing undercuts the bond again and again. Always, on the brink of a genuine breakthrough, the build-up is ruined with a sudden change in topic, never dwelling long enough to let audience members feel, just for a moment, that connection between them. It doesn’t help either that for a realist play, their conversations often sound forced or constructed, telling of Theo’s experience as a writer.
There are some interesting points that could be further developed, particularly as the two build up towards sexual intimacy again. The differential in power and race comes across as a particularly striking theme, with Michael seemingly fetishising Cyril in a verbal faux pas, adding a darker undertone to the entire play. Unfortunately, these moments are also undercut by both actors, whose awkwardness with each other translates into a lack of chemistry.
Towards the final scenes, Michael’s behaviour becomes increasingly unnerving, almost beginning to worship Cyril by begging him to stay, massaging his feet while reminiscing his own past, asking when he can see him again. Naturally, one feels protective of Cyril, even as we wonder why doesn’t he just get out and leave, and it feels like Michael’s goodwill from the scenes that came before is almost completely lost by the end.
Ironically, for all their chemistry and conversation, much like an actual no strings attached encounter, making a formal introduction has never crossed their minds. It is only at this point that they finally trust each other enough to introduce their names, almost as if showing us how a relationship transcends what we’re called, and is dependent instead on our personalities. Either way, it doesn’t matter – when morning comes, Cyril hesitates, touches Michael’s cheek briefly, before rushing away. Michael awakens to the empty space beside him, resigns himself to fate, and as the audience, we too wonder if this pessimistic ending really is all there is to modern love – glimpses of good conversation before becoming strangers again once the pleasure is over. There are just some gaps that cannot be bridged, no matter how much of a spark there seems to be.
Cyril & Michael ran from 19th to 22nd August 2021 at the Drama Centre Black Box.