I didn't go to see a preview of Bare off-Broadway last Sunday evening with any intention to write about it, or with the expectation of being especially moved. I was wrong on both accounts. A musical set in a Catholic boarding school, Bare is a coming-of-age set of stories that focus (in heart and attention) on two boys who fall in love and become the center of all the issues attending sexuality and with all the complications of judgment, depression and suicidal potential.
Dated, you might say? Maybe pertinent in 2000 in its unrevised state when it began to be seen, but too narrow for times where gay marriage is ever more being legislated into apparent acceptability? Not so fast, I would respond. For one, many of the bullying emergencies and even suicides we have seen catastrophically broadcast across the land tell us that this is still one of the biggest issues our kids can face. And even though it is true we have a tendency to be shocked and despairing about middle class white bullying, bullying is systemic and has been present in other racial, age, economic and social groups for eons. Looking at one part of it can serve to open the gates of compassion for more of the whole. Especially when the playwright, and thus the play, experiences this play as a venue that highlights issues surrounding authenticity of all shades.
Jon Hartmere, Bare playwright, does the rare achievement of presenting issues in the midst of feelings, and with no motivation to preach. The play becomes humanizing, also because we come to identify with these people who are caught up in their own conflicts and angst about the social pressures dousing personal truth, as social pressures too often tend to do. We come to know them as most of us also know the pressures leading us to a secrecy, and at times a loneliness, that feels impossible and without exit. The bullying, whether by a priest or a family or a cyber set of rumors, feels inescapable to the audience as well. It is crucial to remember -- and this play helps us to do just that -- that adolescence can be a period of tunnel vision to anyone who sees few options. Helplessness, which seems anything but temporary, can make the walls close in and the horizon disappear. This isn't just for the middle class, but anywhere in the world.
Hartmere, now 38, began writing Bare when he was 21, stumbling and falling over his own attempts to prove to himself he was straight, to hide the sexual liasons he had with with men, and to eventually move on to risk what seemed like everything to affirm the truth that he was and is gay. He gets into every character in the play and has to, in real life, reckon with his own past cruelty as when he forced a younger fraternity member to de-pledge and to say nothing of their lovemaking -- ever. His empathy extends to his own family members, Irish Catholics without a huge "emotional vocabulary," who have traveled through their own inner obstacles to have their love win out, and to embrace both Jon and his partner of now.
And so this play gives us some of the bare essentials -- love, lust, doubt, conflict, compassion -- to ponder and to experience. It seems like a play that has music as a part of it, rather than a musical where the music and lyrics are "numbers" that pepper the experience. The play has the spice already, and the music brings us another avenue by which to experience the content. The songs are not splashy but part of the dialogue, and in fact are so clearly enunciated as to become a seamless part of all else, particularly as the show moves to engage the audience in what these boys, and many other boys and girls are feeling. It is not that common to come out of a show about adolescents and feel like we could be them or their parents, or that we remember our own past trials, doubts and even mistakes. Not to clone the play for other subjects -- but stories are how we learn best, because we can empathize with what at first might seem too weird, strange or foreign.
Jon Hartmere seems to have little to no arrogance about himself or the play. He remarked, "All the insecurities of life, they happen every day." And as I told him I agreed, I added that I feel that too few therapists and gurus understand the raw nature of feeling and how much practice we need navigating the ragged emotions within us that never seem as smooth as much of the advice out there implies. But I added, as he went on to wonder about how far he has actually gotten in his own life and growth, that he has written this play after all, and that he has the awareness that confronting conflicting emotions and choices doesn't end with a production. His response was simple and gracious: "I'll take that".
I'll take the play, and I recommend it to anyone who is willing to go on a ride where emotions will be real if you let them. Oh, and I almost forgot -- this play makes you laugh as well. The music rocks, as does the whole cast: they are vibrant, exuberant, sober and somber when crucial, and indelibly real.
Bare: A Pop Opera opened Sunday, December 9 at the New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, NYC.