Mrs. Robinson, she is not. Sure, The Campsite Rule is ostensibly about an older woman initiating a younger man (only by a decade) into the world of sex. But the play refreshingly avoids clichés and sermons and instead focuses on the unlikely connection between two quirky adults—even if one of them is technically a bit more “adult” than the other.
The players in question: Susan (Rachel Manteuffel), a sexually experienced Classicist who always has a witty, if often ridiculous, response at the ready; and Lincoln (Matthew Sparacino), a college freshman also accustomed to diffusing situations with humor, even if his jokes can fall even flatter than Susan’s. The two meet cute (and a little pretentiously) firing quotes at each other at a college keg party, and stumble into bed together despite—or maybe because of—their awkward exchanges. The scene is very funny (was World War I really the gayest war there ever was?), but it takes a while to settle into writer Alexandra Petri’s consciously clever, if not-so-realistic style of dialogue.
The play’s title comes from an expression popularized by Dan Savage of “Savage Love” fame: It means if you’re an older partner, it’s your responsibility to leave your younger partner in at least as good a shape as he or she was when you began your relationship, just as campers try to leave behind as few traces as possible at their campsite. That means no STDs, no pregnancies, no baggage—you get the idea. It’s clear Susan has no intention of violating such a rule with Lincoln: As they continue to see each other, she’s kind, she’s fun, and she’s basically up for anything, within reason. But the play’s conflict hinges on whether she might be willing to consider something more than just sex with someone who doesn’t fit neatly into her life as a boyfriend.
Director Megan Behm blocks the play tastefully without condescending to the audience—The Campsite Rule isn’t shy about depicting sex, oral and otherwise, but it doesn’t get overly salacious, either. The action takes place on a sleek set with a zippy, contemporary soundtrack. Petri’s script has an empowering sensibility while never feeling preachy. Susan is confident and matter-of-fact about her wide array of sexual experience, and also tempers her friend Tina’s (Hazel Lozano) shame when she begins berating herself for making a mistake with a married man. (“You’re my friend,” Susan counters soothingly, when Tina starts calling herself a jezebel.)
It takes the actors—part of the Washington Rogues company—a few minutes to warm up and get comfortable in their roles, but the performances in The Campsite Rule are generally strong and rather endearing. Though her character switches a bit abruptly from spastic academic to seasoned sexual tutor, Manteuffel is vibrant and winning as the complex Susan. Dorky but gentlemanly Lincoln feels like an adorably relatable creation in Sparacino’s hands. In general, Campsite Rule is a satisfying modern love story (well, modern “like”, anyway) that gently subverts any knee-jerk reactions the audience might have.
The Campsite Rule is at the Anacostia Playhouse through August 16. Running time is about one hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($20) are available through the Washington Rogues website.
Find Missy Frederick on Twitter at @bylinemjf.