In the curious, provocative drama “Twelve Thirty,” written and directed by Jeff Lipsky, out actor Jonathan Groff plays Jeff, a young man who has been bewitched by Mel (Portia Reiners) since high school. After a lengthy and talky flirtation, they consent to have sex.
Within the same week, Jeff seduces Mel’s sister Maura (Mamie Gumer) and has an intimate encounter with Vivien (Karen Young), Mel and Maura’s mother.
Meanwhile, Vivien’s husband, Martin (Reed Birney), maintains a sexual relationship with his wife and a caring relationship with his daughters, although he now lives with his partner, Robert.
The sexual roundelay that transpires in “Twelve Thirty” is intriguing, and in the film’s most dramatic moment — a set in the family’s kitchen — the gay Martin confronts the promiscuous Jeff about his interactions with his family members.
In a recent phone interview, Lipsky, who is straight, said “Twelve Thirty” was inspired by two other films: a 1990 Russian comedy-drama entitled “Adam’s Rib,” about three generations of women living under the same roof; and the 1967 American classic “The Graduate.” He changed the three generations of “Adam’s Rib” to two and reversed the “Mrs. Robinson” character — represented here by Vivien. His conceit works well, as the balance of power between Jeff and the women he romances is always shifting and uneasy.
Lipsky acknowledges that while his film’s protagonist shares his name Jeff, the early “loss of virginity” scene is the only autobiographical element in his film. The writer-director has created a multi-layered fiction that explores issues of truth and trust, as well as protection, control and sexuality. Lipsky coaxes an impressive performance out of Groff, and he has the utmost praise for the actor, gushing, “He was inquisitive about every line. He and I were completely in lockstep with the character.”
Of course the question is raised about Groff’s believability as a heterosexual man having sexual with a trio of women, given an April 2010 “Newsweek” article that named the openly gay actor as someone who could have trouble playing straight convincingly.
Lipsky responds adamantly and definitively to the casting question: “I’d not heard of Groff before casting. I saw ‘Spring Awakening’ after he left the cast. ‘Taking Woodstock’ was released after we cast ‘Twelve Thirty.’ Then ‘Glee’ came along. I didn’t know of his fandom gathering critical mass. When I met and auditioned him, called him back, cast the film and directed him, I had no idea he was gay. If he came out before the movie, I can’t say if I would cast him or not. But I can’t imagine another actor — straight or gay — who could be more believable or plausible.”
Lipsky also insists that a line in the film where Jeff tells Maura that he is not gay was in the original script, and not added to address Groff’s off-screen sexuality. The comment specifically refers to Maura’s attitude toward her father’s bisexual identity.
The filmmaker then cites a persuasive scene in the first 30 minutes of his film — shot in close-up to emphasize its intimacy — in which Jeff and Mel are sitting in a car. He is on the brink of losing his virginity to Mel, and his desire for her is palpable. “Twelve Thirty” is full of such sexual tension, especially in the third act, when Vivien holds Jeff’s penis and contemplates what — and if — something more physical will occur between them.
Lipsky deliberately keeps what happens in the film vague. One key sex scene is shot almost entirely in darkness, with just the actors’ voices relating the action. Part of the pleasure of “Twelve Thirty” is determining what exactly is true. The writer-director defends his ambiguous approach to storytelling by claiming, “I don’t like to tie things up in a nice, neat bow, so why should something seem simplistic on the front end either?”
The characters in the film are equally complex. Although Lipsky describes Jeff as “a complete innocent who has been experiencing all these desires … then crosses a line and becomes testosterone out of control,” some viewers will see him as utterly duplicitous. Others still may feel he’s being manipulated.
Perhaps the most interesting character is the bisexual Martin. Lipsky has a real fondness for this father figure, and admits that he would love to explore Martin’s story with Robert — his happy, well-adjusted but never-seen partner — in another film.
He explained that while all the roles were interesting to write, this minor character was particularly challenging to create. “I’ve met many people in my life who are ‘Martin.’ But I am a heterosexual man, so when I write a bi character, I want to make sure I don’t make any mistakes, or undercut the character — that he’s as empathetic and believable and as important as any other character in the film.”
Martin has only three scenes in “Twelve Thirty,” but each one is vivid and critical. And that confrontation scene in the family’s kitchen is one of Lipsky’s favorites. “It unnerves audiences,” he emphasizes gleefully. “It’s a big shocker.”
All these complexities may be what make Lipsky’s film so noteworthy and refreshing. There is much to discuss — about the characters’ behavior, the actors’ daring performances and the bold storytelling — that “Twelve Thirty” practically demands a second look for audiences to believe what they have seen.
Jeff Lipsky will introduce and discuss “Twelve Thirty” with audiences prior to and following all evening performances at the Ritz at the Bourse on May 6 and for all shows on May 7.