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Regretrosexual @ The Phoenix Theatre

The Foibles of Sexual Identity

Ah, the fluidity of human sexuality. The ease with which some of us pass from orientation to orientation without the slightest desire for good, old-fashioned fixity of preference speaks volumes about the fallacy of a set identity. Not only does Dan Rothenberg's one-man show, "Regretrosexual", proffer us with the best theater title in decades; it also presents us with an engaging, light-hearted exploration of the one thing most of us take too seriously: sexual orientation.

Rothenberg's rollicking, one-hour autobiographical monologue scours the depths of his past and present tendencies with the overanxious élan he's known for in his standup comedy routines. The premise is that he's living in Los Angeles and is just about to meet his girlfriend Steph for their six-month anniversary. Rothenberg waffles back and forth on whether or not he should reveal some not-necessarily-pertinent information to his lady love -- namely, that he "used to be" a gay man living in San Francisco.

Rothenberg's comedic charm isn't too far from that of, say, a Jerry Seinfeld. His physical demeanor and expression of perpetual bemusement make him the prototypical neurotic mensch, who creates a string of yarns from the almost negligible minutiae of daily life. However, as Rothenberg recounts his background as a high school jock and former alcoholic, he reveals a vulnerability that is both endearing and heartbreaking.

Rothenberg hems and haws about his past in the beginning, which is appropriate if you think of his performance as an internal debate. When he finally gets around to recounting his exploration of same-sex relationships, he's unequivocally hilarious. The spot-on reenactments of bar pickup scenes are sure to resound with audience members, gay or straight, and Rothenberg's overemphatic swagger (as we discover, he has a thing for John Travolta, circa "Grease") also scores points.

Rothenberg has been a standup comic for years, and his awkward charm always comes across as conversational rather than performative. The Phoenix Theatre's intimate stage space creates the sense that Rothenberg is talking directly to you and maybe even seeking a bit of validation before spilling the beans to his girlfriend.

Whether Rothenberg's really gay or really straight doesn't end up being that important either way, by the end of the show. In some ways, sexual orientation becomes a secondary factor, since this is primarily a show about overcoming self-doubt. (After all, Rothenberg admits that he began dating men because it made him feel more confident about his sex appeal.) The more Rothenberg spins his tale, the less we remember Steph, who was the impetus for all his misgivings to begin with. Rather, the focus is Rothenberg's sometimes convoluted but always entertaining process of sussing it all out, and coming to terms with his past decisions.

While Rotheberg sometimes comes across as a whiny dilettante, he does so with an almost tentative self-awareness that's what ultimately makes the show work so well. While he seems a bit caught up with the idea of normalcy, he delivers a painfully honest, engaging exploration of sexual identity -- one that's so refreshing precisely because it doesn't purport to have all the answers.

"Regretrosexual" plays through August 27
at The Phoenix Theatre
Tickets: $20