Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Some Men has all the luck at Actor's Express

Posted By on Wed, May 7, 2008 at 9:43 PM

click to enlarge dfinney3.jpg

It's fitting that Some Men, Terrence McNally's play about modern gay history in New York, should itself feel like a turning point for plays about gay life. Alliance Theatre associate artistic director Kent Gash directs a superb production for Actor's Express, the best show so far in the first season of the playhouse's new artistic director, Freddie Ashley. Ashley's program notes for Some Men are worth quoting in some detail:

I believe that Some Men is a landmark of gay theatre. McNally already penned Love! Valour! Compassion!, one of the most important plays about the gay experience to emerge from the 1990s. In that work, he brilliantly captured a snapshot of the needs and concerns of the gay community at that moment. And what’s more, that play has maintained its relevance for more than a decade since its premiere.

The Express staged a terrific production of Love! Valour! Compassion! about 10 years ago. Like one of Anton Chekhov's classic comedy-dramas, LVC used three holiday weekends at a vacation house over a single summer to create a microcosm for the gay (male) community. With Some Men, McNally significantly expands his canvas to encompass the evolution in homosexual acceptance and relationships going back to the 1920s, although the vast majority of the play takes place in the late 1960s and later.

Closeted gay men endure loveless marriages, chafe at social restrictions and object to police oppression. Nevertheless, even during a wrenching scene in a 1980s AIDS ward, Some Men doesn't become a play about victimhood. McNally focuses almost exclusively on the interactions between gay men, as opposed to their tensions with the "straight world."

Bookended by a present-day gay wedding ceremony, Some Men takes place in short plays in vignettes that are compelling across the board. Several of them find hilarious humor in the sexual customs of their respective decades: in the 1970s, unabashed bathhouse hedonism proves overwhelming for an older gay couple (Don Finney and Tom Thom), while 30 years later, on-line chat rooms provide more boastful lies than honest connections. Actor Doyle Reynolds offers a sympathetic through-line as Bernie, a married father who has his first experience with a man in an early flashback. Later, his gay squash partner (John Benzinger) berates Bernie for planning to leave his family and come out. Across the years, Bernie finds love and, eventually, a surprising relationship with his son.

All of the show’s nine actors play multiple roles (although Reynolds only plays two, making Bernie easy to recognize), and since the recurring characters seldom visibly “age,” sorting out who’s who can be confusing. Nevertheless, Gash directs many moving and sublime moments, such as Will Cobbs singing “Ten Cents a Dance” at a 1930s Harlem night club (and nodding to the homosexuality of the song’s famed lyricist, Lorenz Hart). There’s an especially amusing generational clash when a pair of amusingly earnest gender studies majors from Vasser (Tim Batten and Louis Gregory) interview Finney and Thon’s “elder queers,” and can’t understand how the older couple could look back on the pre-Stonewall era as a “golden age.” Some Men also finds a running joke about New York neighborhood snobbery across the decades. In the 1970s, living in Staten Island was apparently far more socially unacceptable than being gay.

The play evokes the death of Judy Garland and the Stonewall riots with a scene at a bar full of “theater queens,” where public displays of affection are strictly prohibited and a loud, abrasive drag queen (Finney, pictured) fits in about as well as Tasmanian Devil. When Finney sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you’re surprised that McNally would go there and risk such a cliché. Finney nevertheless sells the hell out of the song, particularly when the character breaks down and almost can’t finish it.

All audiences, not just gay ones, will be moved by Some Men. I suspect McNally partially intends the play to be a kind of challenge to other gay playwrights to deepen and broaden their explorations of gay life and character. For at least the past 25 years, gay theater has been a venue for voicing, reflecting and testing social and cultural ideas, defining a gay community going through enormous changes. Actor’s Express’s own production history reflects the versatility of gay theater, from provocative plays about relationships like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Steve Murray’s Rescue and Recovery; to passionate political works like The Laramie Project and the long-running musical The Harvey Milk Show; to breezy comedies like Jeffrey and 2006's The Last Sunday in June.

The latter play in particular, in which characters describe their evening together as if it were a gay play, suggested that gay theater, for all its strengths, risks becoming stale and must rise above mere cleverness (like the Express's recent Based on a Totally True Story) and eroticism. Some Men's jokes and nudity covers those bases, but overall the show speaks to much bigger themes, as if calling for gay plays to move to the next level. With Some Men, McNally leads by example.

(Photo by Coosa Valley Photography)

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