I first encountered Tracy M. Smith's work in Milwaukee about 10 years ago, when she was known as Tracy Doyle. Around this time, she helped found a plucky troupe called Insurgent Theatre, which set out to challenge local audiences with homegrown plays and performance art. Its first production, Reverb: A Vulgarization of Jean-Paul Sartre's Vision of Hell, blew my formative young mind. When I saw Smith's name on the poster for Broom Street Theater's latest play, Lekker Mann (through June 22), I was instantly intrigued.
These days, Smith is a microbiologist at UW-Madison, but she hasn't traded experimental theater for Erlenmeyer flasks. She drew upon both of her careers when writing Lekker Mann, which is billed as a "visceral disaster drama." Six thirtysomethings grapple with infectious disease and illicit desires when a storm traps them inside a small Madison apartment. As the streets flood, all hell breaks loose, and they must decide how to make this living nightmare stop.
The story begins with single gal Charlotte (Suzan Kurry) complaining that a good man is hard to find. By "good" she means attractive, funny, intelligent and incredibly magnetic. Her married friends Grace and Greg (Alicia McCanna, Sean McLean) listen sympathetically but seem preoccupied with their own concerns, namely the baby Grace is about to birth in a few days. Soon, scientist Alex (Eric Olson) arrives with his wife, Julie (Erin Ronayne), and we understand what Charlotte means by magnetism. They turn into slavering animals when they lay eyes on each another. Before long, they're laying their paws on each other as well, much to Julie's horror. Meanwhile, another friend, Cormac (Nick Salimes), is lost in the storm that rages outside. The city shuts down, and the tide rises, along with the group's anxiety levels.
A few of the plot's details are needlessly improbable. For example, Greg notes that "911 isn't picking up" after Cormac returns to the apartment gravely ill. And it's not terribly convincing that Alex and Charlotte would toss caution to the wind as quickly as they do, especially with Alex's wife in the apartment. But the actors and script do a great job of building tension in the room. Even Cormac's horrific, sickness-induced shrieks, delivered offstage, create palpable gloom. And Kurry attracts attention with charisma and confidence, deftly emphasizing her character's sexiness. It's hard to look away when she injects innuendoes and sultry stares into her interactions with Alex.
Lekker Mann is an accessible play, but it isn't for the faint of heart. If you've got a serious case of hypochondria or aquaphobia, you should exercise caution. During this show, anyone in Broom Street Theater's tiny black-box space could get splashed with a liquid that's supposedly filled with infectious prions. And if siting a few feet from simulated sex makes you uncomfortable, you may want to wear some interesting shoelaces since you'll be looking at the floor for the last few minutes of the first act. But these elements are bound to titillate many audience members.
More importantly, Lekker Mann will get you thinking about the concept of contagion. Over the course of two hours, you'll see how quickly anxiety, flirtation and physical ailments can spread. And perhaps the questions this play raises -- when to trust your instincts and when to give up on a partner or even a life -- will spread just as quickly as the play's fictional disease. I hope so.