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Donnacadh O’Briain

Rotterdam – Intimate, But Large As Life


“You’re not supposed to stay in Rotterdam. It’s a port. Everything’s moving on, it’s just passing through, nothing’s standing still. It’s all on its way somewhere…else.”

There are more melodiously named cities in Europe. Rotterdam almost sounds like a curse muttered under the breath. Fortunately for all, and very unlike its namesake, the play named Rotterdam, now playing at 59E59 Theatres, is a thing of surprising beauty.

The story centers on Alice (Alice McCarthy) and Fiona (Anna Martine Freedman), who have both been living one way or another in the closet in the titular city. Alice is working on a letter to her parents to tell them she’s gay and living with a woman. Fiona, who has been out as a lesbian since she was 10 years old, has a secret of her own, but it isn’t until she reads Alice’s draft that she decides to acknowledge what she has been feeling the last several years. Her confession: She isn’t a lesbian, but rather a man who was born into a woman’s body. And she wants to transition.

Ellie Morris and Alice McCarthy

What do you do when someone you love tells you they’re actually something completely other than what you have come to know and love? In Alice’s case, her lover wants to come out as a man—something Alice hasn’t had any real interest in pursuing because Alice, as she’s trying to tell her parents, is a lesbian. If she loves Fiona, who wants to grow a beard, flatten his chest and be called Adrian from now on, what does that make her? On the verge of admitting to the world who she is, her identity is called into question. Can she be a lesbian when the woman she loves isn’t really a woman?  Alice is thrown into existential chaos, whereas Adrian is delighted that he can finally present himself as a man after a lifetime of pretending to be something he’s not.

Thrown into the mix are Fiona/Adrian’s surprisingly resilient brother Josh (Ed Eales-White), who also happens to be Alice’s best friend and one-and-only ex-boyfriend, and Alice’s colorful and exuberant 21-year-old gay coworker Lelani (Ellie Morris). Josh adds necessary perspective to the proceedings as the one who really has ‘been there and done that.’ Lelani is great because she’s so young and spontaneous and so fabulously lacking in perspective.

Anna Martine Freeman and Ed Eales-White 

McCarthy and Freedman showcase incredible strength and control as actors, but also invite the audience to witness heartbreaking vulnerability. It’s no wonder that the play was awarded several of the London West End’s Olivier Awards: It’s generous with its open heart and wrenching in its honesty. Even the characters who lend most of the comic relief, Josh and Lelani, provide moments of insight that tug at the heartstrings in an “I’m glad I’m older and wiser” kind of way. They’re both incredibly refreshing though, and necessary on a number of levels.

Rotterdam is blessed with a perfectly on-point script by Jon Brittain and a quartet of actors who deliver universally outstanding performances. Brittain achieves a perfect balance of humor and heartbreak, proffering the opportunity to feel sharply contrasting emotions that somehow actually make the entire experience both realistic and bearable. On their own, each character is emotionally discordant, lacking something that would make them better, stronger people. Together however their shortcomings act in complement to one another, and the combined effect is lovely harmony.

With direction by Donnacadh O’Briain, even the interstitial moments, the moving of furniture and setting of props, is entertaining. The scenes transition beautifully, with fairly minimal set dressing and a soundtrack of toe-tapping, head-bobbing Dutch dance music keeping up the energy. O’Briain embraces the small space and allows the conversation and action to spill right up to the front row instead of opting to keep the actors at more than an arm’s length. And that’s what Rotterdam is like; it’s intimate but large as life. It implores you to really live, to try new things, to make the most of who and what is around, to feel and experience. It’s about learning and growing, even—and maybe especially—when it scares you. And knowing that there will always be someone to hold your hand when it does.

Photos by Hunter Canning
Top photo: Anna Martine Freeman and Alice McCarthy

Written by Jon Brittain, directed by Donnacadh O’Briain
Produced by Hartshorn – Hook Foundation Ltd for Brits Off Broadway at
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through June 10, 2017