Breaking the Rules of Attraction

Anna Martine Freeman and Alice McCarthy in Jon Brittain’s “Rotterdam,” directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, at 59E59Theaters through June 10. | HUNTER CANNING

How can we ever know who we’re really attracted to? That’s the question at the heart of “Rotterdam,” a searing, thoughtful drama by Jon Brittain about a lesbian couple who, in fact, may not be a lesbian couple.

If this sounds rather cryptic, that’s the point. Relationships between any two people can be messy enough, but when one has a gender identity crisis, all bets are off.

The tangled narrative of “Rotterdam,” now at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway series, feels raw and immediate. Alice has had a rough time coming to grips with her sexuality. A coming-out email to her parents languishes on her computer yet she cannot bring herself to hit send.

British import explores thorny complexities of love and transgender identity

Her partner of seven years, Fiona, is having an even rougher time with her own identity. On New Year’s Eve in their flat in Rotterdam, she announces that she has always identified as male and now plans to start living as Adrian. Alice, who loves Fiona dearly, is as flummoxed as she is blindsided. Does this mean that she’s straight? Will Adrian have to quit the lesbian book club?

If all this weren’t dicey enough, Lelani (Ellie Morris), a flamboyant, free-spirited young coworker, starts opening Alice’s eyes to the wonders of the city — and to the option of straying from her partner. Alice’s ex, Josh (Ed Eales-White, skilled at injecting sardonic comic relief), won’t let her forget that she broke his heart years ago when she dumped him for Fiona. He calls Alice a “massive dyke” with equal parts bitterness and affection.

“Rotterdam” is billed as the first transgender-themed play to win the prestigious Olivier Award and was a sold-out hit in London’s West End. New Yorkers are lucky to have access to this first-rate production, which features a clever backdrop (designed by Ellan Parry) fitted with multiple doors, closets, and cubbies that suggest a variety of locales, and an inspired selection of throbbing Euro synth-pop tunes from the likes of Depeche Mode, Robyn, Christine and the Queens, and Kraftwerk.

This highly engaging, intricate character study threatens to collapse under the weight of so much emotional baggage, but the finely tuned lead performances help keep the proceedings steady. Alice McCarthy brings an air of tenderness to the indignant, embattled Alice, grappling with taking care of her own needs while trying to support Adrian. Anna Martine Freeman is perfectly cast as Fiona/ Adrian, expertly handling the bumpy transition from woman to man on both an emotional and physical level.

The entire enterprise is energized by Donnacadh O’Briain’s inventive staging, where scenes overlap and the action is kept moving at a fast clip. Characters randomly appear, dancing around passionately or putting the finishing touches on their outfits and gazing at the audience, which serves as a stand-in for a mirror.

A shocking, climactic scene, where a distraught Adrian second-guesses his decision, is as heart-wrenching as any you’re likely to see on a New York stage this season. Also compelling is an earlier scene where Alice tries to grasp how long her partner has been hiding a secret.

“It’s not like I’m trying to change,” Fiona says. “I don’t want to become a man. I… I think… I know… I already am one.”

As it happens, the play serves as a primer for cis folks new to the transgender world. We learn, along with Adrian, how a binder makes breasts appear less prominent and about the effects of hormone therapy. There’s talk of strap-ons, mastectomy, and scrotoplasty. Choosing between the men’s and women’s toilets becomes a routine trauma. And yes, it can feel a bit didactic, like when the term cis is dutifully defined (“when your body and your gender match up”).

Why Rotterdam? The Dutch city, forever second-fiddle to Amsterdam, is notorious for its unemployment, urban decay, and vast port where goods come and go, not a place many dream of calling home. It’s an apt way station for these intrepid souls — none of them actually grew up here. They are stuck or unsettled or marking time, plotting their move to leave the city so that their real lives can take flight.

ROTTERDAM | Brits Off Broadway | 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. | Through Jun. 10: Tue.-Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3:30 p.m. | $25; or 212-279-4200 |Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission