Playing the Field

Playing the Field

“In society the homosexual’s life must be discreetly concealed. As material for drama, that life must be even more intensely concealed.


“In society the homosexual’s life must be discreetly concealed. As material for drama, that life must be even more intensely concealed. If [a homosexual playwright] is to write of his experience, he must invent a two-sex version of the one-sex experience that he really knows.”

Though many realized that Stanley Kauffmann was writing about Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and William Inge when he brandished those controversial words in the New York Times, he didn’t dare cite the playwrights by name. The year was 1966, and to paraphrase the opening lines of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, we all did things somewhat differently back then.

Of course, Kauffmann had no idea that a landmark gay drama called The Boys in the Band would open Off Broadway in only two years, and help spark a gay revolution the following summer. And like the theater itself, we’ve come a long way in the intervening decades. The voice that dared not speak its name has been shouting ever since, not least in the theater, where the countless openly gay plays that followed The Boys in the Band have continued to fuel the gay movement, while tracing its trajectory.

Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, which is currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway and has just won the Tony Award, is indeed one of the best gay plays in years. When it opened at the Public Theater last fall, this ambitious new comic drama was an unwieldy work that tried to say too many things simultaneously, without its prolific playwright’s customary grace. In the course of tightening his script for the play’s move to Broadway in February, however, Greenberg has created an intricately woven and multidimensional work that defies glib classification.

By focusing on the aftershocks that occur when a star ballplayer tells the media that he’s gay, Greenberg seamlessly ties together matters of sex, race, multiculturalism, politics, political correctness and celebrity in Take Me Out. The title alone is a “triple” play-on-words that refers to the refrain from the familiar baseball song, to coming out of the closet and to a climactic beanball murder. The phrase is also used in the play when someone says that baseball, at its best, “takes you out” of yourself.

The star player is Darren Lemming, a member of the Empires, the defending world champions. (From their uniforms to the stadium’s distinctive Gothic top deck, the Empires unmistakably evoke the Yankees.) The team includes a couple of Latinos who keep to themselves, as well as a Japanese pitcher who doesn’t speak English. Another teammate, Kippy, serves as an omniscient narrator, delivering Greenberg’s liquid exposition.

In an opening prologue, Kippy introduces us to Darren, a “one-man emblem of racial harmony…a black man who had obviously never suffered.” When someone sarcastically asks Darren who made him God, he replies–without a trace of irony–“God made me God.” Given his galloping egotism, his “aura of invincibility,” Darren thinks nothing of casually admitting that he’s gay during a news conference, apparently heedless of any repercussions.

“This changes nothing, Darren,” says Skipper, the manager of the Empires who will do anything to appease his top player. One dimwitted teammate complains of feeling self-conscious in the locker room, even as he continues to parade around in the nude–as does most of the cast during a couple of controversial shower scenes. But, remarkable enough, nothing does seem to change, at first. Then along comes Shane Mungitt. A hot, young, fastballing pitcher, Shane helps the team recover from a losing streak. But he is also an antisocial redneck hillbilly, reminiscent of John Rocker. (One of Greenberg’s many humorous conceits is that Shane grew up in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.) At the end of Act I, which began with Darren’s disclosure, Shane tells a group of reporters, “Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind the colored people–the gooks an’ the spics an’ the coons an’ like that. But every night t’have’ta take a shower with a faggot!? Do ya know what I’m sayin’?”

As Take Me Out continues to grapple with its overlapping themes, there are several surprising developments in the second act, which both provoke and follow the suspension of Shane but which won’t be divulged here. (Kippy refers to the ensuing events as “the Kafkaesque part of the evening–well, Kafka-lite.”) But versatile juggler that he is, Greenberg never loses sight of his ambition to convey his personal love of baseball, which he does primarily through Darren’s new accountant, Mason. A timid, self-effacing gay man, Mason knows nothing about the sport when he begins working for Darren, but he gradually comes alive through his burgeoning love of the game as well as his unexpressed adoration of his client.

Greenberg reserves some of his most eloquent writing for Mason, who shares what he learns with us. “Baseball is unrelentingly meaningful,” says Mason, who explains:

I have come to understand that baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society. It has to do with the rules of play. It has to do with the mode of enforcement of these rules. It has to do with certain nuances and grace notes of the game…. Baseball is better than Democracy–or at least than Democracy as it’s practiced in this country–because unlike Democracy, baseball acknowledges loss. While conservatives tell you, leave things alone and no one will lose, and liberals tell you, interfere a lot and no one will lose, baseball says: someone will lose. Not only says it–insists upon it!… Democracy is lovely, but baseball’s more mature.

Both as written by Greenberg and as brought to jubilant life by the gifted character actor Denis O’Hare, Mason is irresistible. Under Joe Mantello’s fluid direction, one of the many mysteries of the production is how O’Hare manages to keep the audience in his thrall without detracting from the rest of the impeccable ensemble. (O’Hare and Mantello both won Tony Awards as well for their respective contributions.) Among the other players, the usually suave Frederick Weller is alarmingly real as the illiterate Shane, and Daniel Sunjata does a subtle job of finding the loneliness beneath Darren’s smug superiority. If anything, it’s another sign of how far we’ve come that an openly gay playwright like Greenberg no longer feels the need to paint an exclusively favorable portrait of a gay protagonist like Darren. And yet the backlash to Darren’s disclosure suggests that we live in a world that still harbors some backwoods bias.

Or do we? Perhaps a more telling, up-to-the-minute measure of just how much gay culture has seeped into the mainstream–and vice versa–is offered by Bert Archer in The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality). This intriguing new treatise, published by Fusion Press, forcefully argues that the gay/straight divide has broken down in recent years. The success of gender-bending performers like Madonna, the proliferation of same-sex unions and adoptions, and the mass appeal of shows like Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under all indicate, in Archer’s view, that the gay movement was a phase we have passed through, comparable to feminism. We have transcended what he calls the “binary nature of sexuality,” and crossed to the other side of a gender-fractured world.

The title of Archer’s essay is, to say the least, provocative. But the book should not be dismissed as the idiosyncratic findings of a radical gay thinker. Indeed, the arrival of Jonathan Tolins’s new play, The Last Sunday in June, which recently moved from the tiny Rattlestick Theater to Off Broadway’s Century Center for the Performing Arts, suggests that Archer is on to something. The play’s title refers to the annual Gay Pride Day and parade that commemorate the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York, but it also evokes Archer’s sense that gay liberation has reached a turning point, if not exactly a moment of closure.

With self-conscious references at practically every turn, Last Sunday is a smart new comedy that both mimics and mocks the generic gay plays of the past four decades. Like The Boys in the Band–the gay granddaddy of them all–it has eight characters who engage in bitchy, rapid-fire repartee while discussing life in the gay fast lane, which, in turn, leads to some relationship-altering revelations. Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! used the same formula to tackle AIDS, even as it proclaimed, in 1994, that gay men had finally surmounted the self-loathing of Mart Crowley’s not-so-merry “band” of the late 1960s.

“Maybe we’re postgay,” says Tom, a thirty-something lawyer, early on in The Last Sunday in June. Tom and his partner of seven years, Michael, have plans to vacate their cramped quarters on Christopher Street for a house in Nyack. It’s Gay Pride Day, and their Greenwich Village apartment provides an ideal view of the parade, so, of course, Michael’s shopping plans at Pottery Barn are disrupted as various friends pop in. The visitors span several generations, embodying the arc of gay identity over the past few decades. The first guest to appear is Joe, a boyish actor in his late 20s. He is soon followed by the HIV-positive Brad, a fortyish journalist who has lost a lover to AIDS, and then by Charles, a 50-year-old manager of opera singers. When Charles says that Michael’s precarious perch on the window ledge makes him look like a character in a play, he both introduces the self-referential motif of Last Sunday, and prompts some witty banter. “It could be a gay play, about gays on Gay Pride Day,” continues Charles.

Michael: “Just what we need, another gay play.”
Charles: “Don’t knock gay theater. It’s very important historically. It used to be the only way we could see ourselves.”
Brad: “Well, now we’re ‘Must-See TV,’ so get over it.”

Later, when a body-builder named Scott comes up from the parade to use the bathroom, Charles quips: “The unexpected arrival of the shirtless hunk–you can’t have a gay play without one.” Then, after Joe suggests that the fashionable juicer in the kitchen can be used as a “prop in the play” and turned on to indicate whenever someone is lying, inevitably it is. In the end, we learn that Tom and Michael do not have the model relationship of fidelity that both they and the others assumed they had.

But the real drama in Last Sunday unfolds with the arrival of Tom’s ex-lover, James. Tolins may well have had Larry Kramer in mind when he conceived of James–notably the Larry Kramer who denounced promiscuity in his pre-AIDS novel, Faggots (1978). Not only has James written a novel about the gay scene, he has also come to detest the bars, the obsession with muscles and buff bodies–in short, everything the scene represents. He says he’s going to renounce “the life” and marry his friend Susan. When Tom tries to win James back to the fold by mentioning their “duty to fight until we are truly recognized in the culture,” James replies, “Are you serious? We’re already overexposed. The culture’s learned everything from us…. The war’s over. We won.”

The boys in Tolins’s band aren’t buying it, however. They invite Susan over after James leaves, hoping to talk her out of the marriage. But Susan holds her ground. When she’s told that she and James will be “nothing but glorified roommates,” she says, “Isn’t that what all couples become in the end, if they’re lucky?”

As if to say that he, too, is fed up with the gay scene, Tolins makes Susan and James the most level-headed of his characters. James’s credibility is somewhat diminished by a strident performance by Mark Setlock, who wowed theatergoers several seasons ago with his one-man star turn as the harried restaurant reservationist in Fully Committed. But under Trip Cullman’s well-paced direction, Susan Pourfar is impressively on target as the no-nonsense Susan, and the rest of the cast manages to transcend the types they portray: Arnie Burton proves especially good at locating just the right ironic tone behind Brad’s many acerbic barbs.

No matter how clever and amusing it is, Last Sunday never entirely rises above the formula it deconstructs, to become as fine a work as Greenberg’s more original Take Me Out. Yet it’s arguably more in tune with the gay zeitgeist of today–at least as divined by Bert Archer in The End of Gay. Indeed, for all its shortcomings, The Last Sunday in June may ultimately be deemed as much a landmark as the very plays it seems to be lampooning.

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