Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gay Ol' Time - The Boys in the Band, The Pride, Yank the Musical, The Temperamentals, True Love Lies - Theatre Reviews

The Boys in the Band - Transport Group Theatre Company at 37 W. 26th Street Penthouse - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Mart Crowley, Directed by Jack Cummings III
Closes Mar. 28th 2010

The Pride - Lucille Lortel Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Directed by Joe Mantello
Closes Mar. 28th 2010

The Temperamentals - The Barrow Group Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Jon Marans, Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Has Re-opened at New World Stages

True Love Lies - Factory Theatre Mainspace - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Brad Fraser

Yank! A WWII Love Story - York Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Joseph Zellnik, Book and Lyrics by David Zellnik, Directed by Igor Goldin, Choreographed by Jeffry Denmen
Closes Apr. 4th 2010

There seems to be a number of plays with gay themes in NYC right now, and if you add in the latest Off-Broadway transfer Next Fall, now at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway (and which I highly recommend with my review of ****1/2 rating), the abundance of gay plays might be a reflection of the current political debates on legalizing gay marriage in America, or maybe producers just know how to hit one of their target markets during a recession (cause if the gays don't still show up for the theatre in a recession, who will?).

What makes this batch of current gay plays slightly refreshing is that none of them are about being HIV positive or living with AIDS. We've progressed from that. On the other hand, a lot of them are still about coming out or accepting ones homosexuality, though almost in a reflective way as opposed to the typical coming out story. Even the new revival of the 1968 play The Boys in the Band is given a fresh outlook via it's super close in-situ presentation (the play is presented in Michael's living room with the audience as guests) and its precarious balance between reflective period piece and its relevancy to the gays situation of today.

In fact, you might get a sort of history of a gay man's self exploration and self understanding through the ages with these plays. Yank is a sweet and endearing musical about 2 gay soldiers who fall in love in WWII in 1943. In The Temperamentals, a secret society of gay men is formed in the early 1950's in order to fight for gay rights in America pre-Stonewall. The Pride follows two sets of love triangles in different times, with a lonely gay man finally connecting with a closeted married man in 1958 London, and when a gay couple breaks apart in 2008. The Boys in the Band moves up to 1968 when a bunch of gay men gather at an apartment for a birthday party, while Brad Fraser's latest play (that ran in Toronto and Scottland) True Love Lies and Broadway's Next Fall explores the progress (or lack thereof) of gay identity in our current century.

Yank! A WWII Love Story is a lovely little new musical that uses the harmonized quartet sounds of the 1940's and brings us back to a softened nostalgic look at the WWII era. Using a found diary as its frame, a young man (a wonderfully endearing Bobby Steggert, who was already so amazing in Ragtime) retells/re-enacts the story of Stu, a scared young soldier who falls in love with a fellow All-American private named Mitch (Ivan Hernandez). Along the way, he joins the Army's magazine Yank, and meets other closeted gays who have learned to dodge the closed-minded system, but alas, when Mitch is finally ready to fully act on his feelings to Stu, they are caught and the reality of gays in American in 1940's sets in.

The tunes by brothers David and Joseph Zellnik nicely bring back joyful memories of that era, while David's book is sweet and endearing with just enough darkness to give the musical some dramatic weight.

Igor Goldin does a wonderful job keeping the show compact and moving on such a small stage, while Jeffry Denmen (who also hilariously plays the very gay Artie and Yank magazine boss to Stu) throws in some fun choreography that works wonderfully with the story without putting the already gay story over the top (well, except the homage to West Side Story's Dream Ballet, but I liked the automatic comparison it gives the story of the doomed gay lovebirds).

The cast is wonderful, with some particularly hilarious turns by ensemble members Zak Edwards, Joseph Medeiros and Todd Faulkner as the Army Steno "girls", and Tally Sessions is particularly affecting as the beefy Czechowski, especially with his baritone voice (though it could have been miked to carry the low tones louder).

Nancy Anderson is the lone woman in the cast and plays various roles to terrific comic effect, while her voice is perfectly suited for the soft sounds of the 40's.

But really, the show holds out so well because the adorable Bobby Steggert centres the entire show with his soulful portrayal of Stu, a young gay man trying to survive the war and falling in love in those times. Steggert brings a lightness to Stu while still convincingly carrying the deep agonies of his situation, and Steggert's voice simply shines with the 40's styled tunes. If I hadn't already been blown away by his performance as Younger Brother in Broadway's revival of Ragtime, his performance here in Yank would have, and it's simply another wonderful performance that is making me a HUGE fan of his.

Bobby Steggert and the Yank cast, along with the Zellnik brothers music and story just make the whole thing seem so hugable and lovable. It's such a sweet and endearing little show that despite being sanitized, smoothed over historic look at a gay love story circa WWII, Yank remains quite affecting and enjoyable.

The Pride follows two sets of trios in two different times, constantly going back and forth between 1958 and 2008 London (sometimes in the same scene). In both times, we follow an Oliver, a Phillip and a Sylvia, but with devastatingly different results.

Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Brideshead Revisited and the West End's Cock, His Dark Materials) plays both Olivers and in 1958, is invited to dinner by his new employee Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough, Donmar's Ivanov), but a deeper connection seems to be made to her husband Philip (Hugh Dancy, Adam, Confessions of a Shopaholic and Broadway's Journey's End) and their attraction deepens despite the closeted nature of the times.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Philip (still Hugh Dancy with fluffier hair) has just left his lover Oliver (again Ben Whishaw), and Oliver is devastated and seeks comfort in anonymous sex (which caused the breakup in the first place) and his best fag hag friend Sylvia (still Andrea Riseborough in funky clothes and wilder hair).

First time playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell has created a fascinating and complexly constructed play that compares and contrasts the plight of the gay man in the two time periods. 1958 Oliver is prim and proper but finds a window of light when he meets Philip and realizes he's no longer alone, while 1958 Philip refuses to acknowledge any gayness he may have, all while Sylvia becomes the poor betrayed wife/friend. The 2008 comparison brings Oliver and Philips relationship to the norm, and shows the importance of the female friend, and then adds layers to Oliver's addiction to anonymous sex.

With Joe Mantello (Wicked, Pal Joey) directing, on a beautifully revealing set by David Zinn, the time jumps between 1958 and 2008 wonderfully play well together in some smart transitions (also aided by Mattie Ullrich's costumes, Paul Gallo's lighting and Justin Ellington's transcendent original music). The play smoothly manages the two narratives and cleverly highlights the ironies and poignancy's within each story without any hugely gimmicky moves.

The cast is particularly great at creating distinct characters in each time era. Ben Whishaw is simply devastating as the two different Olivers and easily switches back and forth between the two in such a beautiful fashion. It's truly a brilliant performance with each Oliver being such a distinct character despite having a similar core.

Hugh Dancy does a great job as the repressed 1958's Phillip while easily charms as the betrayed 2008 Phillip. Andrea Riseborough is wonderful as the contrasting Sylvia's, one as the woman betrayed by gay men, and the other as the woman gay men rely on. Adam James rounds out the cast playing various characters and he makes the most of his smaller stage time.

The Boys in the Band is performed on the 12th floor of a building that is "Michael"'s living room. With windows on 2 sides looking out into the real New York City, and cramming in 99 seats scattered among the living room, we are automatically thrust into the party Michael throws Harold in this classic gay period play. The play was revolutionary at the time, presenting gay characters not as the lone token sidekick but as THE characters. Now we see the different characters as stock gay characters, and the plot is somewhat convoluted. The lines, while funny, can get very nasty and mean, but by making the play so intimate in this in-situ presentation, we are transported to the late 60's as voyeurs of a gay history lesson that may actually still hold sadly true. While New York gays in 2010 may be completely over the self-hatred and only go into their closets to pick their favorite designer outfits, gays in the rest of the world (or heck, in some parts of the country) may still have some of the acceptance issues that pepper the characters in The Boys in the Band.

The strong cast, that bravely acts in and around the audience (much like Our Town except with a full set by Sandra Goldmark that wonderfully denotes the 60's yet still feels contemporary) keeps the power of the play alive, and the intimacy seems to smooth over some of the nastiness inherent in the play.

Jonathan Hammond (Houdini in the Broadway revival of Ragtime) slowly unravels as our host Michael in a powerful performance that shows the layers of self-hatred underneath is proud preening. John Wellmann rolls with his showy role as the flamboyant Emory while Kevyn Morrow nicely balances the other half as Bernard, Emory's better Black half.

While Nick Westrate isn't given too much to work with in the sketched out Donald, Westrate creates a wealth of a character, especially in his reactions to his partner Michael, as well as to everyone else. With characters running around in every direction, the audience has different views to the proceedings, and Westrate, even when on the sidelines, nicely conveyed his poor-little-rich boy intelligence with heart and resonance.

Graham Rowat (who in full disclosure, helped reserve me a ticket via twitter) (Guys and Dolls, White Christmas) beautifully underplays the straight-acting gay Hank, who isn't getting the commitment he needs from his marriage-like relationship with Larry (Christopher Invar, who slowly reveals a devastating core). Rowat also nicely interplays with Alan, the lone straight intruder to the party, and amazingly performed by Kevin Isola. Isola has the difficult role that needs to balance between his mysterious true sexuality and the reason he stays at the party despite the bile thrown at him, and Isola somehow makes it make sense.

Jon Levenson finally saunters in last as birthday boy Harold and it's an over-the-top performance via a dry and slow and low voiced delivery and while I'm still not sure I get his performance, Levenson sure guaranteed the laughs everytime he opened his mouth. Harold gets to lear over his birthday gift, a beautiful cowboy escort, and while John Wellmann's performance seems a little stiff though sweet, the more I think about it, the more his low-profiled reactions would make sense when the party starts to devolve the way it does.

The play, while flawed, still resonates with some deeper core issues that still affect 21st century gays. The relationships are wonderfully interplayed here right up close and personal in this unique setting that strengthens the overall power of the piece.

The Temperamentals which has now moved to the larger New World Stages after last years successful run at The Barrow Group Theatre (where I saw it), is a nice history lesson in the gay rights movement pre-Stonewall. Designer Rudi Gernreich (Ugly Betty's Michael Urie) falls in love with communist Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan) as they build their secret organization to fight for gay rights.

The cast is great, particularly Urie and Matthew Schneck (playing multiple roles) but while the play tries to mix romance with the history lesson of the play, the dryness of the history soon catches up to the piece while the romance never fully resonates. It's an interesting play about a fascinating look at gay history in America but the balance of drama and romance are never quite equated correctly into the whole, and the wonderful performances keep the clunkier moments afloat.

A slight trimming of the play would probably tighten it up, and I haven't heard if the play has changed since moving to its new Off-Broadway home, but the play I saw last year was fascinating but imperfect.

Finally, prolific gay playwright Brad Fraser (Poor Superman) debut his latest play in Scottland and Toronto last year, and while the concept for True Love Lies sounds promising, the once fiercely independent and shocking playwright seems to have written and directed a quite sitcomy new show.

In Fraser's new play, a married father of 2 teenagers meets up with his once longtime gay lover... and hilarity and shocking revelations ensue. The wife already knew, but it's news to the kids and while things get a little twisted into taboo territory, it all somehow feels four-camera-sitcomy and unaffective. The cast teeters from playing it too broadly but mostly due to the lines and direction they were given, as they seem to breathe as much reality as they can into the characters. I particularly liked Andrew Craig's disenchanted teenager and David W. Keeley (above with Craig, Broadway's original Mamma Mia, Stratford's Oklahoma) puts depth into the returning ex-boyfriend, but all in all, it felt too sanitized, which considering it's a Fraser play, just seems wrong.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


Linda said...

I was going to write a blog post about this, but you beat me to it. I saw Yank!, Next Fall, The Temperamentals, and The Boys in the Band in the same week, and I've also seen The Pride, so I was also thinking about how together they form a gay history. I'm glad you wrote this so I don't have to. =)

Vance said...

Ha, yah, I wished I had time to see Next Fall on Bway again this time around to include into this review!

Diederick said...

Ow, I wish this was closer to home. We have great theatre here, but never the really grand plays (or at least not until a decade after their start). It would be such a nice change from all the boy-meets-girl propaganda we get nowadays.

As if the straights are afraid of losing ground.

Esther said...

Sadly, I won't get to see any of these plays. But I just watched the movie of Boys in the Band. I think you'd find the comparison interesting, if you haven't seen it. It's funny but also brutal and sad. And definitely watch the mini-documentaries on the extras.

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