Friday, July 13, 2018

Theatre Droppings: Oh Mary, Don't Ask

Confetti and balloons, cake and dancing, hilarious quips and bawdy bon mots. There's even a parlor game.  Who wouldn't have fun at a festive celebration like this? Turns out, NOBODY has fun.  Welcome to Harold's birthday party.
This poster for the 1970 film was
banned by many newspapers
across the country. A more subtle
poster replaced it (it's below)
One of the buzziest shows in New York this summer is a 50 year old play considered to be a ground-breaker, finally making its Broadway debut.  The Boys in the Band opened in a tiny hole-in-the-wall performance space in Greenwich Village back in 1968; it ran over 1000 performances and put gay characters front and center before mainstream audiences.  At its opening, the play was celebrated as the first realistic illustration of the modern gay lifestyle.  About a year into its run, the show ran into some trouble.  
A pre-Exorcist William Friedkin saw this original production, and signed on to direct the movie version, with one condition: that the full original cast recreate their roles on film. He needn't have made such a demand. No Hollywood agent or manager would have allowed a client to go anywhere near this thing, and even the New York actors involved were told playing gay would end their careers.
Michael hosts a party for Harold. These two thoroughly
nasty queens create the dramatic stimuli of the play.
In 1969, a group of ragtag drag queens, hustlers, and other gay undesirables were harassed by police during a raid on a dive bar called The Stonewall Inn.  Several days of rioting ensued, and the modern gay rights movement was ignited.  This movement encouraged homosexuals to be proud of their identities, rather than to be ashamed, and to this day, celebrations of homosexual and gender fluid identities all carry the label of PRIDE.  
The Boys in Mart Crowley's play are anything but prideful. Quite the opposite, these nine characters are filled with self-hatred and shame regarding their sexuality. During a booze-filled evening right out of the Edward Albee playbook, they punish each other for their own feelings of self-loathing. (Though Michael never says it, he is playing "Get The Guests" better than Virginia Woolf''s George and Martha)
Is Boys in the Band an honest examination of a generation of
gay men forced to remain in the closet except in hidden bars,
bathhouses, and the occasional Saturday night birthday party?
Or does it offer a highly limited view of gay society in the late
60s, portraying gay men as psychologically damaged, haunted
and ashamed?
Gay activists such as the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, disowned the bitchy, sad, and fairly unpleasant characters portrayed in The Boys in the Band.  So our Boys became controversial not only in the mainstream, but also among the gay community; this controversy continues today.

I didn't know anything about this controversy when I first became aware of The Boys in the Band, when, at age 13, I opened the Sunday edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and saw this movie ad:  
As a pre-teen in the Deep South, I had no knowledge of the provocative Off-Broadway play depicting homosexuals; I never even knew the Stonewall riots had happened.  But something about this poster told me I needed to see this movie.  It was rated R.  I was not able to see the film until several years later, and it has remained my only exposure to The Boys in the Band until last week, when I saw it for the first time onstage.
The first thing I can report about the Broadway production of Boys in the Band is this: it's friggin' hilarious.  Somehow, the same text which comes off as vicious on film becomes enjoyably flippant onstage, at least initially.  
Director Joe Mantello is not stupid.If you have a specimen
like Matt Bomer in your gay play, you strip him to his
underwear as soon as possible. This first scene between
besties Donald and Michael plays like a dream,
 endearing both men to us,until Parsons's Michael
 picks up a gin bottle and turns into Mr. Hyde.
Congratulations in no small part must go to director Joe Mantello, who has guided his cast to mine the laughs, and they have struck gold.  The first half of the show (in what used to be its first act; playwright Mart Crowley has wisely trimmed the play a bit and removed the intermission) feels like Terrence McNally wrote it. Jim Parsons as Michael, the leading character, knows his way around comedy, and his first scene, opposite Matt Bomer, is full of laughs. 
Robin de Jesus as flameboy Emory, Michael
Benjamin Washington as token black Bernard,and
Andrew Rannells as promiscuous Larry, all add to
the festive atmosphere of the first half. This party
would have been such fun, if the host hadn't
torpedoed his own event by showing that queers
are not just self-hating, they're also self-
We like these men immediately, and that fond feeling extends to the other Boys, as Andrew Rannells, Robin de Jesus, and Tuc Watkins join the party. I was joyfully able to put aside my distaste for this text and start to recognize that perhaps the original play can be treated simply as a period piece.

Except it can't.  Many gay men of the generation depicted in this play have accused the playwright of displaying some very nasty stereotypes, as if all gay men of the period felt the same self-loathing expressed by the play's lead character, Michael.  There is a  seminal quote from Michael which is difficult to defend: "If only we could learn to stop hating ourselves so much."  This is an exclamation difficult to justify, and one which I have trouble overlooking. 
Once Michael (Jim Parsons) picks up that gin bottle, he turns from a charming and witty host into a vicious annihilator. He slings racial, ethnic, and anti-Semitic slurs at his guests, and conducts a party game aimed to humiliate the players. This sudden shift in character was very difficult to accept from Parsons, who did not handle this arc as well as the originator of the role, Kenneth Nelson. When the party is finally wrecked and done, Michael himself has a breakdown. As he recovers himself, he utters the sentiment which has alienated large portions of the gay population for decades; "If only we could stop hating ourselves so much."
Leonard Frey and Kenneth Nelson, as Harold and Michael,
delivered two indelible performances in the film, pretty much
steamrolling the other actors; it's hard to remember much
about any of the others.
Michael indeed seems to be a self-hating homo, and I have no problem with such a character being portrayed onstage, we've seen many of them over the years.  But he doesn't speak only of himself; he doesn't say "If only I could learn to stop hating MYself so much." He says "We" and "OURselves," suggesting to the world that all gay men despise themselves.  This is not true today, nor was it true in 1968. 
"These are really Harold's friends," our host Michael explains before the birthday party begins. Really? We'll have to take that as a leap of faith, as there is scarce evidence that anybody has a friend in this room.  I keep wondering, what is it that holds this group together?  There doesn't seem to be much actual friendship apparent, in fact quite the opposite, as the evening progresses.  And once the host turns from hospitable to hostile, why oh why do all these guys stay?? It takes a huge leap of logic to accept that all these guys sit still and take the abuse Michael dishes out. I wonder if playwright Crowley was attempting to show that gays tend to form their own ad hoc families, and will take all sorts of crap from them?  Crowley's contemporary Terrence McNally (they are only 3 years apart in age) did exactly that 25 years later.  McNally wrote his own version of Boys in the BandLove! Valour! Compassion! succeeded in showing a group of 8 gay men gathering in celebration, and while there is PLENTY of queeny bitch-talk in that play, there is never any doubt that the group loves each other.  I'm not sure the boys in Crowley's band even like each other very much.
I have huge respect for these two actors. I've seen Zachary Quinto onstage in The Glass Menagerie, and he's got the
goods. Jim Parsons has won multiple Emmys and even better, appears to be an actor of  intelligence and gentility. As with all the actors in this production, they are conducting their careers as out gay men. So I'm disappointed to report that their performances are the least convincing in the play. 
Though the performances surrounding them cannot be faulted, I'm sorry to say that I was disappointed in the work of stars Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. Parsons has a congenial quality which simply cannot sustain the vicious behavior of his character Michael. And Quinto's entrance late in the play actually saps the energy in the room.  
Birthday boy Harold (Quinto) meets his "gift," the hustler called Cowboy. This is Harold's entrance into the play; we've been hearing about this character for almost an hour, and he arrives just after a climactic moment of physical violence which has shocked the audience.  Structurally, these early moments are needed to re-center the energy of the play, and set it off into its new, darker direction.  It's a very tricky moment, it's where the intermission used to be. Quinto's languid, reptilian way of moving and speaking does not give the play the new boost it needs, in fact it seems a lot of the energy already created by the other actors is sucked out of the room when Quinto takes over.
The real surprise in the second part of this play comes from one of my favorite stage actors, Andrew Rannells. 

He is playing Larry, a role which was quite forgettable in the film, one half of the only gay couple in the piece.  Larry is the guy who picks up a different trick every night and has no desire to settle into a hetero-normative  relationship. 

Tuc Watkins makes his Broadway debut in the role of the
straight-appearing Hank. Tuc is proof that many so-called
"soap studs" are gay; he spent years as the resident hunk on
One Life to Live. His performance here is grounded and
But he has reluctantly fallen for the conservative Hank, a school teacher with kids who has recently left his wife but is looking to replace that marriage with a similar one with a same sex partner. 

This subplot is dull as toast in the film, I'm sorry to say, but in this production, Rannells's sparkle moves it front and center.  The sequence in which these two mismatched lovers declare their commitment to each other is, for me, the highlight of the show's second half.
A word should be said about Charlie Carver as Cowboy, who appears to be making his professional stage debut in this production. I remember this kid from Desperate Housewives, and apparently he's maintained a lively career in TV/film (it has helped that he has an identical twin, they have often worked together). 

Charlie Carver came out publicly several years ago, and has an interesting story. His parents divorced when he was quite young, and he only found out later that the split was due to his father's homosexuality. His own coming out must have been fraught with extra baggage.
Carver's role of the hustler is pretty one-note, though you can feel the audience turn against Michael when he makes snide comments about this poor kid's lack of intelligence. But Carver's final moments onstage are pretty poignant. As they are leaving, Harold asks his hooker how he is in bed. "I try to be a little affectionate," he replies. "It helps me feel less like a whore." 

The Boys in the Band is going to carry its legacy as a groundbreaking play despite the debate regarding its central theme. This Broadway production is a worthy revival of this problematic piece.  I can't help but think about those actors in the original production, back in 1968. We now know that five of them were gay, all of whom died during the Aids epidemic.  The original director and producer were also taken. 
Ironically, Robert La Tourneaux's performance as the hustler Cowboy was prophetic. He had turned to prostitution when he died. Leonard Frey (left) had a more successful career, capped with an Oscar nomination as Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof. They both died of AIDS.
Kenneth Nelson (left) was the original (and unforgettable) Michael.  He had already created some theatrical history by appearing as The Boy in the original production of The Fantasticks.  His post-Band career was definitely affected by his association with The Boys.  He also died of Aids. Cliff Gorman (right) gave a very brave performance as the flamboyant Emory.  Gorman was straight, and went on to win the Tony playing Lenny Bruce in Lenny.
These are the last surviving members of the original production (at least, we assume so, as nobody can find the black guy). They escaped the Aids epidemic, they are both straight. Peter White (right) went on to play Linc Tyler on All My Children, off and on, for 30 years. Lawrence Luckinbill (left) maintains an active film/TV career, and married into Hollywood royalty to boot (he's husband to Lucie Arnaz). 

If you've gotten this far, you're clearly interested in this landmark play; there is a fascinating documentary, made in 2011, which  explores the various reactions to The Boys in the Band when it first arrived on the scene.  It's worth checking out, if only to hear how the play affected some younger playwrights such as Tony Kushner while it infuriated some of Crowley's contemporaries, such as Edward Albee.  Here's the trailer for that documentary:

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017: Old Friends, New Adventures, and Scary Numbers

As soon as it was announced that Boys of a Certain Age would have an Off-Off-Broadway run, my best friend Judy (center) booked a flight from Milwaukee. She spent President's Day weekend with me, and our old undergrad buddy Patrick accompanied her to see my show. Afterward, we had a long evening of dinner and dish. Casual events such as these always turn out to be highlights for me.

It's fun, enlightening, and slightly scary to sit down and decipher the highlights of a year. After looking at my 2017, I have to recognize that my "bi-urban" experiment is showing surprising results. Six years ago, I landed a super apartment in New York, and began splitting my time between New York and DC. I still feel a bit more at home in DC, but none of the following highlights of my year occurred there.  In fact, all but one happened in New York. Somebody may be telling me something...
Boys of a Certain Age was that rare new
play which had humor and heart and very
smart writing. All four of us were gifted
with terrific material from which to craft
four unique characters. I wrote about this
experience here.
Soon after the year began, I started work on a project which would turn into one of the most satisfying with which I have ever been involved.  We began rehearsal for the official Off-Off-Broadway production of Boys of a Certain Age, which ran for three weeks in February.  Performing the play, and playing this role in particular, ended up being the highlight of my year, but perhaps it's good I didn't know it at the time.  Imagine knowing that the highest point of your entire year is in February, then having to face the next ten months sliding downhill.  
The role of Ira in Boys of a Certain Age was one of the best I've ever had.  He was a survivor of AIDS activism and was haunted by the friends he lost to the plague, but he never lost his compassion or, thankfully, his humor. Ira was everybody's favorite Jewish grandmother, if your grandmother 1) had a penis and 2) was a cross between Larry Kramer and Julia Sugarbaker.  He was great fun to play, and I consider the production to be one of the highlights of my career.
Brian Gligor played my nephew in Boys, and did me the biggest favor anyone did for me all year. He's a whiz with websites and such, and I have long struggled with setting up my own site.  All actors are supposed to have them, at least in New York, and I purchased the domain name years ago but never did anything with it.  After one of our rehearsals, Brian came over and, as I plied him with martinis, he set up my site.  We had a blast that night, carousing until 3 AM, and the result was a smashing success.  Thanks, Brian! Go here to see our handiwork:

Jack Young hired me several times when he
ran the Warehouse Theatre in South
Carolina. I hadn't seen him in years, though
I frequently work with actors he has trained.

While in rehearsal for Boys, one of my old comrades from years ago came to New York.  I was thrilled to be able to spend an hour or so with Jack, since I had not seen him in many years.  Jack was not the only old friend with whom I reconnected this year.  Over the summer, by coincidence, two friends from my undergraduate days in L.A. spent a weekend in Manhattan;  our lunch date reaffirmed what I have always suspected: the friends we make in college are likely to be for life.
It was such a treat to share a meal with Lisa and Barrie when they visited New York; I hadn't seen either one in at least 30 years. I met Lisa in high school and she later played my wife in George M. I met Barrie when she played one of the twins in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; she later directed me as Dr Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace. All three of us shared many years together.
I met David when we played in
Big River together. For years,
he offered me his couch any
time I went to NY to audition.
One of the real blessings of 2017 was my rediscovery of my old friend David Beris.  I thought he had moved to Florida, and he is not on social media, so when I opened the NY branch of my life, I never even tried to track him down. I bumped into him at an audition last spring.  We've had lunch several times since then, but one of my resolutions is to see him more regularly. I have a lot of acquaintances now in New York, but very few real friends (I think it's true that the older you get, the harder it is to acquire friends).

During the early part of the summer, I filmed my first web series.  Well, I guess it's not a series yet, but the idea is for it to become one.  A funny young gent named Max Talisman wrote a fictionalized autobiographical account of his life as a young gay man trying to make it as an actor, and he was able to produce a few scenes to be shown to various producers, in hope of gathering enough support to film the full series.  I played a gay man who has aged out of the dating pool, but still submits himself on dating sites (using a 30 year old pic).  The scene was great fun to film, I've seen the finished product and it's a hoot.  Though the role was written as a one off, I have been campaigning to have the character return, should the project go to series.  Every youngster in New York needs an older mentor, especially a comic one who also lives down the hall.
In July, I participated in a staged reading of The Tempest for Titan Theatre Company.  I dislike this play, largely because I have an ongoing problem with Shakespearean magic, but it was a fun experience, and set the stage for a more formal return to Titan in the fall.  
As the Mayor of London in Titan's Richard III.
I think there are 5 reasons to do a play; if none
of them are present, it's best to pass:
1) Money
2) It'll be good for your career
3) You'll learn something new
4) It's a bucket list role
5) You'll have a blast doing it
None of these applied to R3. I should never
have inflicted Titan Theatre with my lackluster
I was asked to join the cast of Richard III, playing two small roles.  In retrospect, I should have declined the invitation.  I had already done R3 twice, and I didn't really have much interest in playing either of the two roles.  When an actor works on AEA's Showcase Code, I really think it has to be for love, as it's not the money (there is none). I have always enjoyed working for Titan (in fact they offered me my NYC debut years ago), but it is not very easy for me to do so.  The company rehearses and performs in Queens, which is a schlep from my digs in midtown.  But moreover, I never challenged myself to bring sizzle to these characters, and I must admit that I was not a success in the show.  I wrote about my disappointment in myself regarding this project here.
As Brackenbury in Richard III. You remember the all-important role of Brackenbury, right? He's the guy who's always standing next to the person talking.
Before beginning R3, though, I fulfilled a big wish for my father.  The pater turned a whopping 90 years old in August;  as his birthday was just a few weeks before the Big Eclipse, Dad asked his kids to gather around him for that event.  
Dad's fascination with the skies led
him to join the military, but before he
could get through flight school,
WWII ended. His career at Lockheed
gave him an unusual talent: he can
look at an airplane flying over, and
name it.
Dad spent his life fascinated with flight (he spent a full and successful career at Lockheed), and his home in North Carolina was right in the path from which this once-in-a-lifetime eclipse could be best viewed. I didn't have much interest in the eclipse, but I have not spent a great deal of time with my father through the course of my life.  I was very happy to share this moment with Dad. We dragged camp chairs out to his front lawn and experienced the event together. Once in a lifetime indeed.

A big highlight of 2017 was being able to spend this special moment with my father. He had just turned 90. He was excited about this August eclipse, particularly once he found out that his home was in the Zone of Totality (I thought that sounded like someplace the Starship Enterprise wandered into unexpectedly). Later they started calling it the PATH of Totality (which I thought sounded like a self-help book).
Playwright Dan Fingerman accompanied me to the IT Awards
ceremony. It was a total surprise that our show received even
one nomination, as we were not produced by an established
company, we had a 3 week run and then were done. Such
plays don't usually get noticed by the IT awards.

In July, Boys of a Certain Age came back into my life, quite unexpectedly.  I was nominated for the New York Innovative Theatre Award as Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role.  These awards aren't exactly Tonys, but in a way, they kind of are.  
The IT Awards celebration brought another reunion. The guy
on the right is Jason Bowcut, who helped create these awards,
and with whom I spent a season at the Shakespeare Theatre Co
in DC (as you can see, many moons ago). It was great fun
catching up with him over drinks after the ceremony, I hadn't
seen Jason in at least 15 years.
The IT organization covers pretty much every professional performance in New York that is not either Broadway or Off-Broadway.  That's hundreds of productions, so I was thrilled to be one of only 6 men nominated for the award.  
I crashed this picture of Hudson Warehouse, whose production of Much Ado About Nothing received several nominations. It was fun to share the evening with this crowd, with whom I have worked repeatedly since arriving in New York.  None of us won that evening, but it was still a night to remember.
This hangs on the wall of my New York branch.  Yep, I'm THAT guy.
This award nomination led to the most significant thing to happen to me in 2017, at least professionally.  I snagged an agent. 
Ever since opening my NY branch, I've ducked the daunting challenge of finding representation (I never used an agent in DC).  But even with the knowledge that my career would not likely progress very far without one, I avoided looking for one.  I was told by more than one "well wisher" that, if you're over 30 and don't have an agent, you'll never get one.  But once this nomination came out, I took the opportunity to contact about 20 agents, and the one who responded actually signed me.

Inevitably, the addition of this important aspect of my career meant another important aspect had to be addressed: my headshots.  I find the task of getting and keeping appropriate headshots to be dismal, so I rarely do it.  Current headshots ranged from 6-10 years old (2-4 years is supposed to be the maximum age of your pictures).  With Agent Renee's input, I spent the final part of 2017 getting new shots.  The lovely and talented Clinton Brandhagen, who has taken my shots for years, spent all day with me and snapped over 1000 pics.  Cutting that number down was mind numbing, but after several torturous weeks, I settled on the pictures which I'm sure will attract all sorts of attention.
I'm hoping these shots will improve my chances of getting "into the room," as Renee says. Looking at the stats for 2017, I certainly could use some help, particularly in avoiding the dreaded Equity Principle Audition, otherwise known as the cattle call. I keep track of all the auditions I attend, the vast majority of which have been these general, union-mandated calls.  
In 2017, I broke my record in numbers: from my first audition of the year on January 4 (for Bucks County Playhouse, they were doing Clue! The Musical!) through my last audition on November 30 (a Shakespeare Festival in the Hudson Valley), I attended a whopping 101 auditions. In eleven months! I get woozy just thinking about that, then it gets even more depressing: those auditions yielded only 4 callbacks.  From those 105 auditions, I got one job.
So while the year was terrific for finding old friends and for some truly unique artistic endeavors, I'm ready to call 2017 dead and buried. Bring it on, 2018, but remember: I'm taking notes.