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Joseph Flynn and Lauren Wood in Chicken Shop. Photo by Cliff Roles

By Kay Kipling

Urbanite Theatre, Sarasota’s newest theater venture, located downtown, has launched itself boldly onto the scene with the U.S. premiere of Anna Jordan’s play Chicken Shop.

Urbanite’s intent is to present edgy, challenging theater that may not otherwise turn up on our stages, and Chicken Shop, with its frank sexual conversations, brief nudity, and adult themes, fits into that description. It pushes a lot of buttons, but it’s not about shocking for the sake of it; rather, Jordan’s characters, passionately portrayed by the Urbanite cast under the direction of Barbara Redmond, are honestly struggling to get through their own versions of life.

Foremost among those characters is the teenage Hendrix (Joseph Flynn, in an impressive performance running a wide gamut), who lives in New York with his concerned yet distracted mother (Lauren Wood) and her 20something girlfriend, Kate (Lucy Lavely), a hot mess who flaunts her sex appeal and is otherwise driving him crazy with her attention-grabbing antics. Hendrix is missing his mother’s former live-in partner, he’s being taunted at school by classmates who think he’s gay, and he spends a lot of time wondering about his own sexuality and looking at pornography.

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Ashley Scallon and Joseph Flynn. Photo by Cliff Roles

When he finds an ad for a “massage parlor” not far away, he pays a visit and meets Luminita (Ashley Scallon), a young woman from Moldova whose whole existence takes place in a small room above a fried chicken shop, where she’s forced to turn tricks by the menacing Leko (Jason Bradley). With her every movement and moment controlled by Leko, she’s desperate to find a way to speak to her little sister by phone, and Hendrix can help with that. But can he help her in a more significant way, in the process growing up and becoming more of a man?

That’s the story of Chicken Shop, and it unfolds with a high degree of intensity here (along with some flashes of humor). The cast and director deserve praise for their commitment and their courage in exploring some unsavory material, and for the most part the production is rewarding, if at times hard to watch.

Jordan may have overwritten the character of Kate to some extent, and her writing overall could be tighter and less repetitive (lessening the show’s running time of two hours, 20 minutes including intermission). But with the performances, especially of the engaging Flynn and Scallon (who’s heartbreaking in her careful obedience to Leko, storing her meager belongings under the bed where she performs and trying not to let him see any of what goes on behind her eyes), Chicken Shop does succeed in touching us in an original, compelling way.

Chicken Shop continues through May 3 at Urbanite, which is located on Second Street; for tickets, go to urbanitetheatre.com or call 321-1397.