Friday, September 24, 2010

Sex and Kansas City

For a gay man, seeing a play by William Inge is like stepping into the Way-Back Machine and coming out into a world in which gay culture was completely encoded into straight culture: Inge's vision of the empty sexual plains of the Midwest - into which a horny drifter suddenly intrudes (sometimes when we're lucky it's Paul Newman, at left) - is as gay as anything Tennessee Williams ever wrote, but it's also more closeted (like the playwright himself), and so embedded in the myths of the American heartland that it reads like some unconscious prequel to Brokeback Mountain.

Of course it says something about the American heartland that it pulled this playwright and his output so close to its hairy chest; indeed, Inge was so influential that his style sparked a cottage industry of hunk-at-large movies and plays (indeed, where would Newman, or William Holden, or Burt Lancaster, have been without him?).  At the same time, of course, gay culture all but took over the American arts scene - Inge orbited just outside a secret bi-coastal world that included not only Tennessee Williams but also Truman Capote, Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, Frank O'Hara, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Johnson - who wasn't gay in American high culture in the 50's?

Naked in the closet in John Cheever's "The Swimmer."
But it's no surprise that, as the closet door squeaked open, and the straight world grappled with gay liberation in the 60's and 70's, Inge wound up being discarded, and his work fell into contempt - he read, like Rock Hudson, as a form of dishonest camp. (Tragically, he committed suicide in 1973.)  But neither is it surprising that now, at least in the civilized portions of the world (where gay rights are kind of a done deal, so Inge's sexuality isn't such a big deal), this long-overlooked playwright is beginning to edge back into our good graces.

Because this minor American master is actually quite a bit better than Brokeback Mountain - although what's striking about Inge today is how he captured the identity not of the American gay male but the American woman (with whom I guess you could say he identified), caught between economic needs and sexual ones in a hard-scrabble world poised to punish any kind of pleasure.  Indeed, having just suffered through Mamet's Boston Marriage and Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, I was struck at how effortlessly in Bus Stop (now at the Huntington Theatre) Inge conjures living and breathing female characters seemngly at will, while Mamet could only construct Edwardian drag queens, and Ruhl psycho-sexual treatises.  Oddly, in Inge, it's actually the studs who seem a bit objectified and generic; the women feel drawn directly from life.  And while yes, they in some ways serve as vehicles for his own frustrated sex fantasies, they also exist independently of him, in a way that Blanche and Laura and Maggie are hard to separate from Tennessee Williams. Inge's women, like Balzac's and Flaubert's,  have histories, and homes, and even, we get the impression, salaries.  His may be the most realistic gallery of American women to ever hold the American stage.

Or perhaps I'm waxing euphorically about Inge because I've just seen a Nicholas Martin production of him.  Yes, the master is back, and pretty much at the height of his powers in Bus Stop, subtly drawing from the play a surprising emotional complexity, while coaxing superb performances from every member of a large cast, which gets to inhabit a big, beautifully rendered set (by James Noone, below) that's impeccable in its detail.  We can confidently add Bus Stop to the shelf of Martin masterpieces, like She Loves Me, Present Laughter, and Love's Labour's Lost, that the Huntington has acquired over the years (let's hope there's room for a few more).

Of course Bus Stop lands right in what I think of as the artistic sweet spot for Martin, where commercial craft edges into art.  So theatre-goers should not be surprised to find Inge's fifty-year-old hit has an audience-friendly melodramatic spine, with an opening stretch of bald exposition, plenty of sex, and a gallery of American archetypes (or maybe stereotypes): the cowboy, the hooker with a heart of gold, the smart kid sister, and the fatherly sheriff all make their respective appearances here, in some form or other; this was a play made not to win awards but make some money.  Inge's great achievement, however, is his orchestration of these characters' interactions over the night they spend stranded in a Kansas snowstorm; miraculously, from conflicts that seem almost pre-fab, he conjures a precisely-observed comedy of melancholy that hints at what you might call, for lack of a better term, the tragedy of the everyday.

Martin, as always, leavens all this with a light comic touch, and I'd argue his shunning of cheap pathos gives Inge's moroseness a needed shot of tonic.  Still, there are a few pastels in this production's palette that should be a shade darker: Cherie, for instance, the famous "chan-tooz" whose entanglement with Bo (that stereotypical cowboy) comprises the central plot, must be a touch more damaged and vulnerable than she appears here (given a sexual history that began at age 14!).  But in general, the tough love of Martin's direction suggests the pathos of these characters without wallowing in it (after all, they don't wallow in it, either).  He even treads lightly on the sexuality of the only person in the play to be literally "left out in the cold" at the close - Bo's quiet, Brokeback-esque sidekick - even though, post mortem (as it were), Inge's closing gambit is an obvious, heartbreaking nod to his own desperate isolation.

And luckily for us, Martin has assembled the kind of cast that will inevitably end up on the "best ensemble" lists for the year - but it seemed to me that first among equals were Nicole Rodenburg as that hardy, basically happy Cherie, Elma Duckworth as the smart, lovelorn young thing, and Noah Bean as the cowboy who mixes everything up.  All trade on a formidable level of technique - Bean's performance in particular is almost a dance of precise physical quirks - but all infuse their work with genuine feeling, so even if they tiptoe up to the edge of caricature here and there, they never cross that fatal line.

More committed, detailed work came from Huntington newcomers Henry Stram, as a seedily elegant professor with a penchant for young girls (another disguised self-portrait by Inge?),  Adam LeFevre as that gentle giant of a sheriff, and the poignantly taciturn Stephen Lee Anderson as the cowboy loner-to-end-all-loners. I don't think I need to tell you that local star Karen MacDonald is excellent (with perhaps the show's most lived-in accent) as the lonesome proprietress of that snowbound diner, or that the skillful Will Lebow, arguably miscast as her crude bus-driver beau, nevertheless makes the role work on his own terms.

What else is there - oh, there seemed to be a little trouble with the downstage light levels in the first act, but that was remedied by Act II.  The rest was pretty much pure pleasure.  We'll never see a better production in Boston of this American classic - or at least not for another fifty years.


  1. It seems to me that you are implying that Paul Newman played the (shirtless) character of Hal in the original 1953 production of Picnic ... but this honor went to Ralph Meeker (Paul played another role and was Ralph's understudy for Hal).

    Did Paul later play Hal in another production of the play?

  2. It's my understanding that Newman eventually took over the role from Meeker during the Broadway run.