While finding some excuse to enclose characters in a small space and then letting them duke it out isn’t totally new theatrical territory, there is a lot that is refreshingly original about Borrowed, a new play by The Broadway Factor’s Jim Kierstead currently making its world premiere at Miami Ironside’s House Of Games.
This look at the complex relationship that develops between aging artist David and young “pretty boy” Justin, who has arrived at David’s apartment a for a planned sexual encounter after meeting him on an app, immediately establishes its strong stakes when Justin attempts to make an early exit and David forcibly prevents him from leaving, threatening him and locking the door. Due to the show’s immersive nature and unconventional playing space, said door is actually the same one the audience members used to enter the theatre, so this has the effect of figuratively locking us in as well. Though there is a corridor available for emergency exits, Borrowed also has a strict no re-entry policy, basically ensuring that the intermission-less play is an uninterrupted excursion into its two characters’ psyches.
Ernesto Reyes left and Caleb Scott right rehearsals (Photo by Melissa Almaguer)
The resulting claustrophobia heightens the tension of this strange tête-à-tête, much of which comes from the factors you would expect from a kidnapping scenario as threats are thrown from both sides and even acted on in a few memorable fight scenes. Even more interesting, however, is the pair’s emotional warfare, which improbably gives way to a fleeting emotional intimacy. At first, David is enraged with his charge for being put off by the noticeable facial scars he has been left with after a battle with skin cancer and Justin seems focused on manipulating his captor with a facade of congeniality. But, against all odds, a rapport and then an understanding appears to emerge between them as both begin to reveal more about themselves and the troubled histories that brought them together.
Though certain scenes fell prey to some level of tedium as information already established was reiterated in recurrent back and forths, Borrowed remains surprisingly engaging for most of its ninety minutes despite the inherently limited scope of the play’s premise. Much of this is thanks to expert direction by Melissa Almaguer and two excellent performances, as well as a dynamic visual and sonic landscape created by lighting designer Anthony Galaska, set designer Jennifer Ivy, and sound designer Ernesto Gonzalez.
Ernesto Reyes left and Caleb Scott right fight scene (Photo by Roger Alejandro Gonzalez)
As Justin and David, Ernesto Reyes and Caleb Scott give vibrant life to their intense characters, though Scott, perhaps by virtue of playing the more complex and fully developed of the two, probably emerges the more compelling performer. After all, while the darkest details we learn about Justin involve his compulsive need to seek out sexual attention from older men as a salve to his workaholic father’s disinterest in him, David’s more traumatic backstory involves time in Vietnam, years in the closet, and a shattered family life.
Along with his aforementioned disfigurement, these traumas have led him to establish a lifestyle of near-total isolation, to the extent that he claims to have taken Justin hostage simply so he could have someone to talk to. Perhaps our own brushes with social isolation courtesy of the recent pandemic may make some of us a little more understanding of David’s desperate longing for companionship, if not the lengths that he would go to in an attempt to satisfy them. Yet, incredibly, and a credit to both actor and script, Scott’s David manages to mostly maintain our sympathy even as he engages in empirically reprehensible behavior, never losing his aura of underlying woundedness even during his character’s most vicious moments.
Caleb Scott (standing) & Ernesto Reyes in Borrowed (Photo by Lyvan Verdecia)