Some recurring themes: Queer Childhoods, Interracial Relationships, Lesbian / Gay Male Friendships, Trans* / Gay Tensions, Parenthood, and Gender Performativity.
January 9, 2014
Ruff @ LaMaMa
Peggy Shaw of the legendary performance group Split Britches is now 67 years old, and in this solo show she explores issues of aging and memory, dealing explicitly with her experience of having a stroke. As butch as ever, wearing a suit and tie and sounding like Marlon Brando, Shaw performs songs like a lounge lizard and tells stories about her extraordinary life as a radical lesbian performance artist and grandmother. I found it both unsettling and lovely to watch Shaw performing post-stroke, and the piece is most moving when she performs in front of a video projection of her teenage self, evoking the passage of time. I first saw Shaw perform in "Belle Reprieve" over 20 years ago, and her theatrical vigor is admirably unstoppable.
January 25, 2014
A Man’s A Man @ Classic Stage Company
Bertolt Brecht’s parable about the brutality of colonialism got an especially queer twist in Brian Kulick’s production at CSC. The transgender diva Justin Vivan Bond (formerly of the cabaret duo Kiki & Herb) plays the Widow Begbick, the smart and sultry proprietress of an army canteen serving the British army in India. Commenting philosophically on the events of the play, Bond’s renditions of Brecht’s songs, set to new music by Duncan Sheik, were captivating—simultaneously smoky and sharp, ironic and heartfelt. Stephen Spinella, the original Prior Walter in Angels in America, also gave a wonderful “against type” performance as the hyper-masculine and over-sexed sergeant who loves Begbick. Even if the production never quite found its footing on Brecht’s shifting sands, the scenes between these two performers were thrilling—and gave students of the performativity of gender plenty to enjoy.
February 6, 2014
The Tribute Artist @ Primary Stages
Drag performer and playwright Charles Busch created one of his most meta plays with this situation comedy about a drag performer who dresses up as his recently deceased landlady in order to keep her beautiful West Village townhouse. Complications arise when the woman’s estranged niece arrives with her transgender son (played by Keira Keeley), a naïve, sunny, and endearing teenager. In one brave and beautiful moment, the boy asks “Aunt Adriana” (Busch’s character in drag) if she’s transgender, too. Busch has to pause for a moment as he struggles to answer, baffled but clearly longing to connect and sympathize. The moment forces the audience to consider how a young person forging an FTM identity and an older gay man who imitates movie queens for theatrical entertainment may both “cross gender” but in crucially different ways and with very different understandings of what gender is. The play is thoroughly silly, but Busch always has sincerity and even insight amidst the shenanigans. And I loved Busch’s longtime collaborator Julie Halston stealing the show as the lesbian best friend and accomplice.
March 8, 2014
Mothers and Sons @ Golden Theater
Terrence McNally’s Broadway play revisits two characters who first appeared in a short play called “Andre’s Mother” in 1988. When Andre died from AIDS, his mother wouldn’t even speak to his grieving partner, Cal. Now Cal (Frederick Weller) has a young husband (Bobby Steggert), and together they’re raising a six-year-old child. Andre’s homophobic mother (the formidable Tyne Daly) arrives unexpectedly at their posh Central Park West apartment. The play moves in real time as the characters recount events from the past while negotiating who they are (and what they owe) to each other now. Many critics were dismissive, but I found the play intriguing and rewarding in its ability to juxtapose the great changes between 1988 and 2014 for this particular class of gay men. Cal and his husband have economic success, cultural power, and happiness, while the homophobic mother is lost, lonely, and incredibly sad. Can the gay man, once the victim of this woman’s bigotry, now give her comfort? How does one treat a vanquished enemy? Ably directed by Sheryl Kaller, the production featured outstanding performances by Daly and the always impressive Steggert.
March 11, 2014
And Baby Makes Seven @ New Ohio Theater
Full disclosure: I worked as the dramaturg on this production, a revival of an early comedy by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. As with previous productions, most critics weren’t too kind to the play, but some audiences seemed to appreciate this queer little story about a lesbian couple who decide to have a child with their gay male friend, unleashing fears and fantasies about parenthood, as well as a struggle over how we define a “normal” family. Ken Barnett, Susan Bott, and Constance Zaytoun gave great performances, both outrageously comic and soulful, and I always found something new to appreciate each time I saw this funny, thoughtful, and theatrically complex play by one of our great playwrights.
March 27, 2014
Wild @ IRT Theater
Crystal Skillman’s gay romance follows a couple as they break up, struggle to move on, and then get back together. The play was greatly enhanced by the intimate staging, with a set that consisted of a large sand box and a single park bench, plus effective lighting and a good soundtrack. In such a setting, there’s a visceral effect in seeing characters flirt, make out, fight, etc. It was a pleasure to watch Hunter Canning, known to me primarily for his web series including “The Outs” and “Whatever This Is,” perform on stage—and frankly I could imagine Skillman’s play working as a web series or indie film. But I’m glad that the New York scene still maintains small stages that can make this sort of play so effective in the live theater.
April 13, 2014
Casa Valentina @ Manhattan Theatre Club
Torch Song Trilogy was such an important play to me in my youth, so I was excited to see Harvey Fierstein finally write a new play for Broadway. We’re at a summer resort hotel in the early 1960s where men who like to dress as women can enjoy some freedom and each other’s company. We get to meet a variety of men, from the proprietor to the respected elder to the newbie. The real drama comes with the arrival of Reed Burney as an activist who wants to make transvestites legitimate, and to do so he wants to differentiate from the queers, thus beginning a gay witch hunt among those assembled. The conceit is interesting, because it asks the audience to reconsider the dynamic between gender and sexuality: the transvestites feel they can be “normal” if they distinguish themselves from the gays, but of course 50 years later the tables will have turned, and it’s the trans* who are often left out while gays are normalized and assimilated. Fierstein’s heart seems most invested in the plight of the long-suffering wife (played by Mare Winningham) who finally realizes that her husband’s feminine alter-ego is the “other woman” in their marriage.
May 13, 2014
Family Play (1979 to present) @ New Ohio Theater
Collaboration Town’s production of a play created by Boo Killebrew, Geoffrey Decas O'Donnell, and Jordan Seavey presents dozens of scenes covering three decades, with constantly changing characters and situations, all intersecting on a round stage with the audience on both sides. The staging is more fluid than in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, creating a fascinating and theatrical slippage of identity. We can see that it’s the same performer’s body, but we can’t always be sure of the character’s age, sexuality, or relationship to the other person on stage. Each actor keeps changing, from young to old, gay to straight, parent, child, sibling, lover, creating a collage of characters unified by the actors’ physical presence. After about 90 minutes, the play can become a little difficult to follow because of its diffuse narrative structure, but I found the writing economical and evocative, the performers engaging, and the staging attractive.
June 17, 2014
Orville and Wilbur Did It @ The New Colony (Chicago)
Full disclosure: The playwright is my life partner. The New Colony Theater, best known for their widely produced hit Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, staged David Zellnik’s absurd road comedy about a troupe of young actors touring America in a children’s theater production about Orville and Wilbur Wright. The play-within-the-play is all about success, and a particularly American sort of can-do / against-all-odds kind of success. Off-stage, however, the performers are all losers: queers and criminals and neurotics and dreamers who do NOT succeed. But in their failure, they find themselves free—to imagine other possibilities and other futures. After trying to follow the road to success, they are suddenly off the map, and they can choose a new path and create something of their own. (NB: The playwright has not read Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. Yet.) An ensemble cast of wacky comedians, Eric Svejcar’s bouncy tunes, and a dramatic climax featuring the hilariously inappropriate sight of “Orville” and “Wilbur” kissing each other on stage made for a fun production that I was happy to see more than once.
August 27, 2014
Bootycandy @ Playwrights Horizons
Playwright and director Robert O’Hara offers an assortment of comic scenes tackling race, gender, and sexuality—which may not add up to a satisfying dramatic narrative, but often are a lot of fun as well as thought provoking. I won’t attempt to connect all of the narrative dots here, but suffice to say that O’Hara’s wild satire hits everything from lesbian wedding ceremonies to racist theater administrators to families who try to force their Michael Jackson-loving sons to be more masculine. The play takes a disturbing but intriguing turn when it explores questions of sadism, empowerment, and consent in a sexual affair between a black man and a mentally unstable white man. Bootycandy feels like a descendant of George C. Wolfe’s brilliant and ground-breaking The Colored Museum, and I was happy to see a major off-Broadway company present O’Hara’s funny and theatrical play on black gay themes.
September 4, 2014
It’s Only Kickball, Stupid @ Hartley House
The theater space is a community room at the Hartley House, with the actors performing in the round and the audience sitting at school tables with crayons and crossword puzzles. Margo is in sixth grade, and a perky girl named Fiona keeps pestering her to play kickball on the girls’ team. On the boys’ team is Fiona’s arrogant boyfriend Henry and his nerdy sidekick Ian. The play then jumps back and forth in time and we see scenes of these kids as adults: Margo is a lesbian living in New York City with Ian, who is gay. Fiona is unhappily married to Hal, who seems an awful lot like an adult version of Henry. The play focuses on the reunion of Margo and Fiona, as they figure who they are—and were—to each other. Playwright Caroline Prugh brings joy and playful wit to her writing, and one can tell the actors, especially Debargo Sanyal as Ian, are having a good time in their dual roles. It’s also interesting to see another play that explores queer childhoods and also shows a lesbian/gay male friendship.
November 7, 2014
Fortress of Solitude @ Public Theater
This musical by Michael Friedman and Itimar Moses tracks the creation and dissolution of a friendship between two boys—one black and one white—growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s. Racial and class differences ultimately pull the boys apart, with one becoming an intellectual in California and the other going to prison. The play is rather cagey about the degree to which this teenage friendship is also sexual, but from my seat in the theater, I couldn’t help but understand the relationship as deeply erotic: they imagine “flying” together as they both hold onto a ring, one seems jealous of the other when he gets a girlfriend, and one spends all of act 2 trying to get that ring (which was his mother’s wedding ring) to his estranged friend. For me, the question isn’t so much whether the play or the characters are “gay,” but rather to what extent the erotic plays a role in forging a friendship across cultural divisions. Fortress of Solitude appears exactly 50 years after Amiri Baraka staged an interracial affair between two teenagers in The Toilet—which also can’t envision any future for such friendships.
Of course there are plenty of plays I didn't see, so I can't pretend that my survey is comprehensive. While the American theater can always strive for greater diversity both on-stage and off-stage, I think 2014 shows positive trends toward plays created in a variety of styles and forms, in a range of venues, depicting an enriching array of lives and experiences. Ever the optimist, I look forward to 2015.