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.