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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

'Angry Fags' seeks to balance warm realism with dark satire

I JUST WANT TO KILL PEOPLE -- IS THAT SO WRONG? Johnny Drago and Jacob York
Filmmaker Spike Lee brought his controversial classic Do the Right Thing to a close with competing quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The Malcolm X passage concludes with the words, "I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it self-defense, I call it intelligence."

Topher Payne's Angry Fags, playing through March 17 at 7 Stages, never repeats the Malcolm X quote, but it seems to echo in the conversations of its characters, particularly two young Atlantans who consider violence as a means of opposing gay bashers and bigoted politicians. The title indicates Angry Fags' eagerness to inspire debate in its audience, although the play's ambitions as a provocative satire can clash with the warmth and credibility of its characters.

The play centers around Bennett Riggs (Jacob York), a soft-spoken speechwriter for openly gay Georgia state Senator Allison Haines (Melissa Carter). Still recovering from a bad breakup, Bennett hangs out with his more flamboyant roommate Cooper (Johnny Drago), with whom he trades snappy banter. The play's instigating incident occurs when Cooper returns home one night, crowing that he saw Bennett's ex-boyfriend boozily embarrass himself over an uncouth patron at their favorite gay bar. Their schadenfreude turns to shock when Bennett's ex-boyfriend is found comatose in an alley, having been savagely beaten.

Bennett and Cooper's guilt and sorrow become righteous indignation when the police label the beating as a possible drug deal gone wrong, and Allison refuses to condemn the action as a hate crime out of concern for bad election-year optics. The roommates' fury at the official indifference spills over to encompass the opposition to gay marriage, the implied passivity of the "It gets better" campaign and even a lack of solidarity among gay people. Later, a chance encounter inspires Cooper to take an extreme action in the name of gay rights and self-defense, which inspires the pair to consider further acts of domestic terrorism.

Payne effectively plays up the incongruity of two men chatting about the likes of Steel Magnolias one minute, then plotting a cold-blooded assassination in their next breath. Throughout his work, the playwright frequently treats his characters with affection, and Bennett and Cooper generally prove likable and believable without coming across as stereotypes. Without resorting to spoilers, Angry Fags becomes increasingly problematic when they target innocent people to cover their tracks. The roles as written and performed simply don't seem dark or sociopathic enough to support their eventual behavior.

Despite the play stretching for two and a half hours (with two brief intermissions), director Justin Anderson sets a crisp pace and smoothly integrates the play's video segments. Granted, some of the ersatz local news broadcasts prove less than convincing, but Nadia Morgan's set, decorated with whitewashed video screens, conveys the social-networked, 24-hour news cycle of the play's milieu.

While the play features effective scenes of both black comedy and Hitchcockian horror, Angry Fags could just as easily be a politically informed romantic dramedy about idealism and compromise, particularly as Allison transforms from a crusading gay activist to just another pol. A nicely observed attraction develops between Bennett and Allison's chief of staff (John Benzinger), and both actors reveal comfortable chemistry with each other over a long, pillow-talk-style conversation. Meanwhile Allison's political challenger (Marcie Millard) reveals herself to be not a cheap caricature but a down-to-earth conservative who dislikes divisive rhetoric even as she accepts the endorsements of hatemongers.

7 Stages' world premiere production of Angry Fags coincides with the 20-year anniversary of the publication of James Robert Baker's Tim and Pete, a novel that shares themes of gay domestic terrorism. The title characters seethe with rage over the Reagan Administration's neglectful response to the 1980s AIDS epidemic, and controversially identify real people as being worthy of murder. While Angry Fags raises interesting points about the potentially ugly cost of political progress or "making it better," its most convincing scenes involve honest communication rather than violence, however justifiable. However intriguing Angry Fags may be, it doesn't seem quite angry enough.

Angry Fags. Through March 17. 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave. 8 p.m., Thu.-Sat., 5 p.m., Sun. 404-523-7647. www.7stages.org

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