Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Scenes from a marriage


Some Men surf for sex on the Net.

When Louise Kennedy dismissed Terrence McNally's Some Men (through March 29, from SpeakEasy Stage at the BCA) as "sweet, slick, and light . . . a harmlessly manipulative entertainment," I confess I was brought up a little short. The play had struck me as flawed, but at its best probably the strongest newish piece of dramatic writing I'd seen in Boston for a while; but was this simply because I was as homocentric as Louise is gynocentric? What was funniest was that I'd just dismissed the chick-littish Clean House as slick and manipulative, while Louise had been ready to hand it the Pulitzer Prize!

Of course, I'm not so silly as to suggest a Pulitzer for McNally. Some Men is at times frustratingly thin, epic in its scope but without a corresponding depth - which comes part and parcel, I'd say, with its structure: it's a pastiche of scenes from gay life over the last century or so. Nevertheless, McNally does pull together a skein of suggestive strands over the course of the evening, and several of his sketches pack a surprising emotional and thematic punch. Indeed, unlike The Clean House, Some Men stays in constant, if light, contact with real life - this isn't the kind of show where cancer victims talk about sex and eat chocolate ice cream before valiantly dying. It is, instead, the kind of show in which people die without any self-dramatization at all.

Which leads me to one of several gaps in the playwright's conception: he offers a single, unsatisfying scene about AIDS, which of course looms far larger in most gay men's consciousness, even today, than this slightly distant treatment implies. But then "slight distance" is in itself a classic gay stance; and McNally is quite right to insist that AIDS no longer defines us, as it did for a decade or so; it has been replaced as our defining issue by marriage, which the playwright deploys as a classic framing device. Some Men opens with a wedding ceremony, for an unseen gay couple: attending are nine men who will become our proxies for exploring gay life through the ages. Several are couples themselves; one or two have been married before, to women; some we learn are related, others only entwined - but soon McNally begins playing a bit loose with his own frame, as it were. Over the course of the evening, we meet many more characters than these nine, and part of the parlor-game aspect of the show is figuring out exactly how everyone connects with everyone else.

"Only connect," of course, is another gay mantra, by another gay writer (E.M. Forster), and it's interesting to consider the connections gay life has actually afforded despite its backbeat of casual sex. McNally's achievement in Some Men is to give a sense of how those connections gradually amounted - like his many vignettes - to something like a revolution, even if he sidesteps such main events as Stonewall (again, that slight distance). Instead, he lightly sketches what amounts to a Proustian timeline (I know, stop me before I go too far): over the course of Some Men, sandwiched in between the hustlers and the backroom sex (at right), an inheritance and a home change hands, and one straight family collapses, only to be reconstituted as a new, gay one; at the finale, we suddenly realize that, like Proust's Gilberte, gay men are now wandering around the halls of the heterosexual ancien régime, where we were once officially excluded.

Of course what all this means for gay identity remains a tantalizingly open question, which McNally never really attempts to answer. His real theme is instead the generational shift in gay consciousness that our liberation perforce has forced. What's striking about Some Men, in fact, is that while it accurately sketches the confines of the closet, it also mourns its passing. One character sighs that on the Internet, his wit, his "gay voice," doesn't seem to translate (typing LOL after a joke effectively kills it). Another older couple expresses surprise when a pair of earnest "gender studies" students question them about their oppression: "We thought we were living in a golden age!" they reply. Indeed, wry nostalgia for gay things past permeates Some Men; despite its confines, the closet in retrospect looks a lot more, well, fabulous than divorce court and Baby Gap do.

Not that McNally actually advocates going back there; still, he lets everyone have their wistful say, even those who sat out the Stonewall Riots (his most powerful scene). And it's at moments like these that Some Men packs the most punch - when specific observation deflates the mythic, and reveals the human disappointment that lurks even within the historic. As Will McGarrahan (above) puts it in that central scene, "Whenever I break out of a box, I sooner or later find myself in a bigger box." He then begins a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" that just might be the most movingly self-aware version you ever heard; in a moment, McNally captures all the contradictions of gay identity, which longs most of all to somehow transcend itself.

Not all of Some Men is so piercing; in general, McNally is less good at conjuring scenes - and eras - that are far from his experience. Likewise he only lightly touches on issues of race (in an affecting reference to a Harlem dalliance of Lorenz Hart's, which neatly repurposes "Ten Cents a Dance" to its probable source). But perhaps plays should be judged by their best scenes, not their weakest - and at any rate McNally's wit and dramaturgical chops keep even his synthesized scenes humming along nicely, and the SpeakEasy cast is always up to the demands of the material (and then some). McGarrahan's turn in drag is peerless, but he is affecting in several roles throughout the show, which Diego Arciniegas nicely anchors in a subtle turn as the married man who leaves the closet for another man (providing the closest thing to a narrative thread McNally offers). The evening also boasts skillful comic turns from Christopher Loftus, Robert Saoud, Maurice E. Parent, and Christopher Michael Brophy, but the entire cast gets a chance to shine in one guise or other; the whole crew has the most fun with that central sketch, in which various varieties of gay dorkery convene around a white baby grand (perhaps rescued from Napoleon's, a long-lost Boston haunt!) to spar over show-tune arcana. I haven't laughed quite so hard at a Boston show in quite some time - nor have I been quite so touched. And I wasn't alone; by the finale, an older gay couple behind me was quietly sobbing. But then perhaps that's what happens to you when you watch your life pass before your eyes.

2 comments:

  1. My view of it tended to come down between yours' and Kennedy's. Let's face it: it *is* easier to write plays composed of sketches (I know, because I can write the latter but not the former); but because some sketches naturally worked better than others, I ended up wanting to see more of the narrative of the four-member family. It may be an unfair judgment on the part of the audience to prefer a through-line, but they do; it's one reason novels sell better than books of short stories. -rb

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  2. I thought my readers might be interested in the following email I received from Tom Kirdahy, the spouse of Terrence McNally, about my review of Some Men (I have Mr. Kirdahy's permission to post it here). Mr. Kirdahy is a longtime advocate for people with HIV, and his point about the group therapy scene in the play is a good one - the current HIV+/- divide in gay life was definitely suggested there (though not stated overtly), and I should have mentioned that in my review; I can only say that a gap of over a week between seeing the show and writing about it made my memory a bit fuzzy on that count.

    The following is Mr. Kirdahy's note -

    Thomas--

    My name is Tom Kirdahy and I'm Terrence McNally's spouse. I'm writing to thank you for your thoughtful review of SOME MEN. Naturally, I have some thoughts of my own, most particularly with respect to your observations about HIV/AIDS in the context of SOME MEN.

    I agree with your analysis that there is probably not enough about HIV/AIDS in the Boston production. Interestingly, in New York the group therapy scene felt a good deal more about AIDS when Pat, the young idealist, told Kurt that he wanted to have sex with him and listed the things about him he most admired. In New York, the HIV positive Kurt wore an ACT UP t shirt and the generational divide came more along the lines of AIDS/post-AIDS generation. It was underscored. So, too, was the quiet moment in the gender studies scene where the young Vassar students ask if they could interview Joel, Alex and Fritz. Without fanfare Scoop and Aaron say "You're a little late" and "They're friends who fought the good fight." Ever so subtle but packs an emotional wallop and looms large when done with the right emphasis.

    I suppose this issue is important to me because I spent nearly twenty years as an attorney providing free legal services to people with HIV/AIDS. It's a HUGE part of our story and I believe that the writing captures the right balance. I also want to be clear that I am not "dissing" the Boston production. In fact, there were many scenes in Boston I found to be superior to the NY production: the Bathhouse, the Internet and Sur La Mer II most particularly.

    I have never written a response to a review of one of Terrence's plays. But yours was so thoughtful and, frankly, so on the money I felt compelled to respond. I do my best not to view my spouse's work with blinders. Nonetheless, I think SOME MEN is an extraordinary play and will be viewed as such with time. Indeed, in spite of some reviews, SOME MEN was the only Off Broadway play nominated for a Drama Desk award in the company of Broadway plays like THE COAST OF UTOPIA and RADIO GOLF.

    Perhaps more importantly, audiences "got" this play and they accepted its structure, as you clearly witnessed at the performance you attended. The play was extended and indeed became a hotter ticket in New York as the run progressed. By the time we had to close the average theatre-goer couldn't get a ticket and the per ticket price had increased dramatically (virtually unheard of in NY theatre).

    Industry people "got" this play and they accepted its structure as well. We received letters from Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights as well as Tony award winning directors and actors in numbers well beyond the ordinary congratulatory notices. It struck a deep, deep chord with many extremely intelligent people who've spent their lives in the theatre; people who understand structure and emotional resonance.

    Artistic Directors "get" this play and they seem to be accepting its structure as well. It's being done all over the place.

    This is all to say THANK YOU for your moving piece. I believe you "got" this structure. Most importantly, thank you for acknowledging that there are times when it's important to look at the best parts of a play to evaluate its effectiveness.

    Everywhere we go people stop to tell Terrence how much they loved SOME MEN. To me, the issue is one of catharsis. We lived through the days of secrecy, weathered the storm of AIDS and suddenly find ourselves in a struggle to publicly affirm our love. We've never had a moment to breathe and reflect collectively. I would not-so-humbly submit that SOME MEN brilliantly provides audiences precisely that opportunity.

    I know you had quibbles with the play. But I could also tell from your review that you "got it" and thoughtfully articulated what so many audiences have felt in viewing this play. Thank you.

    With gratitude and admiration--

    Tom Kirdahy

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