The Shock of Recognition

11/13/2017 05:52 pm ET

As one ages, time seems to fly by faster than ever. I can still remember how shocked my father was to discover that he was 70 years old. One of Bea Arthur's classic retorts was to look someone in the eye and growl "I have dishes that are older than you."

Many people measure their lives by referencing events that involve family and friends. In his 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along (which was based on Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1934 play bearing the same name), Stephen Sondheim wrote a lyric that resonates over the decades of a persons's life:

LGBT people of a certain age lost far too many acquaintances and lovers to the AIDS epidemic; some never lived long enough to become "old friends." One day, midway through the 1980s, I started a list of friends from my gym, from my extended family, and from my local community who had succumbed to the disease. After the list passed the 600 mark, I simply stopped counting. However, two recent articles made me think about how much has changed in recent years.

Two recent performances caused me to reflect on how much has changed in gay theatre over the past four decades. One evening was devoted to an anthology of new short plays presented by the Left Coast Theatre Company, a small nonprofit that encourages aspiring playwrights to write about LGBT issues. The other performance was devoted to Larry Kramer's landmark play about the AIDS crisis entitled The Normal Heart. The production was being staged by Theatre Rhinoceros (founded in 1977), which now bills itself as "the longest surviving gay theatre company in the universe."

What else happened in 1977? The Gay Men's Theatre Collective in San Francisco presented the world premiere of Crimes Against Nature, a provocative and deeply moving work that has since been hailed as a seminal piece of gay theatre.

Poster art for 1977’s <strong><em>Crimes Against Nature</em></strong>
Poster art for 1977’s Crimes Against Nature

In November of 1977, Peter Adair's landmark documentary entitled Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives had its world premiere at the Castro Theatre.

In June of 2019, mass media will mark the 50th anniversary of 1969's Stonewall riots. For some people, what was shocking in 1969 might seem pretty tame by today's standards (when everyday events can include a large group of nude bicycle riders or a performance of Drag Queens on Ice, LGBT people have little hope of frightening the horses).

By no means does that mean that gay plays have lost their relevance. Especially not when a 50th-anniversary revival of Mart Crowley's groundbreaking 1968 bitch fest, The Boys in the Band, is slated to occupy the Booth Theatre in 2018 with a cast starring Jim Parsons (Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Tuc Watkins (Hank), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Matt Bomer (Donald), Robin De Jesús (Emory), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bernard), and Brian Hutchison as Alan under the astute direction of Joe Mantello.

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The Normal Heart received its world premiere production from The Public Theatre in New York, where it opened on April 21, 1985 and ran for 294 performances. By that point, I had been writing my opera column (Tales of TessiTura) for San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter for nearly eight years. During a trip back East, I attended a performance of Kramer's play with my father. The experience was quite disturbing for both of us.

In April of 2011, The Normal Heart received a long-overdue Broadway production during which, on many nights, the playwright could be seen outside the theatre, handing out information to audiences about the AIDS crisis. Shockingly, many of the young gay men who attended the production had no knowledge about the history of the AIDS epidemic. When I recently mentioned Kramer's play to one of my physicians (who had done a stint researching the HIV situation in India), she confessed that she had never heard of it. That's one reason why John Fisher'sprogram note for the current Theatre Rhinoceros production is so telling:

"I found Larry Kramer's Reports From The Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist to be a shocking, page-turning experience, much like the experience I had the first time I read this play. Mr. Kramer is an endlessly fascinating individual, a man who has channeled his rage into a persona both frightening and caring. The first time I saw him was on Ted Koppel, cutting in on Koppel, not letting any of the other panelists speak. I loved it! His story is explored in further depth in his play The Destiny of Me. And his tome, The American People, is a magisterial rewriting of American history as seen through queer eyes. The Normal Heart needs both much introduction and, for many of us, none. I choose then to let the play speak for itself."
John Fisher (Ned Weeks) and Jeremy Cole (Felix Turner) in a scene from <strong><em>The Normal Heart</em></strong>
(Photo by: David Wilson)
John Fisher (Ned Weeks) and Jeremy Cole (Felix Turner) in a scene from The Normal Heart

Several years ago, when American Conservatory Theater presented a touring production of The Normal Heart, I remember some gasps accompanying the shock of recognition as a terrified male patient appeared onstage with Kaposi's sarcoma lesions on his face and arms. Some theatergoers instantly recognized the telltale purple splotches; others in the audience were oblivious to their significance.

Jeremy Alan Howard (David), John Fisher (Ned Weeks), and Tim Garcia (Mickey Marcus) in a scene from <strong><em>The Normal He
(Photo by: David Wilson)
Jeremy Alan Howard (David), John Fisher (Ned Weeks), and Tim Garcia (Mickey Marcus) in a scene from The Normal Heart

As directed by John Fisher (who also takes on the role of Ned Weeks), this production of The Normal Heart proves its relevance to today's world in surprising ways.

  • The frustration of Dr. Emma Brookner (Leticia Duarte), the wheelchair-bound doctor who was diagnosed with polio as a child, offers a sobering reminder of how determined medical and political authority figures can be when they do not wish to be challenged with questions for which they have no answers.
  • The fear of exposure gripping former Green Beret Bruce Niles (Benoit Monin) and mayoral aide Hiram Keebler (Jeremy Alan Howard) reminds audiences of the toxic effects of living the kind of closeted lifestyle that demands rigid compartmentalization as the key to one's day-to-day survival.
  • The fierce denial gripping Felix Turner (Jeremy Cole), a fashion, food, and society writer for The New York Times who won't risk coming out by trying to get a science writer to do a story about the new gay plague, eventually makes Felix the character who draws the most sympathy from the audience.
Jeremy Cole (Felix Turner) and Robert Zelenka (Ben Weeks) in a scene from <strong><em>The Normal Heart</em></strong>
(Photo by: David Wilson)
Jeremy Cole (Felix Turner) and Robert Zelenka (Ben Weeks) in a scene from The Normal Heart

  • The emotional toll suffered by overworked staff and volunteers like Mickey Marcus (Tim Garcia) who find their jobs threatened because of their political views can be seen in the way the Trump administration has perversely been gutting scientists from NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The ability of a self-proclaimed "Southern bitch" like Tommy Boatwright (Morgan Lange) to defuse confrontations between men whose priorities, fears, political loyalties, and egos can transform them into their own worst enemies resurfaces as a character trait in short supply.
Morgan Lange (Tommy Boatwright) and Tim Garcia (Mickey Marcus) in a scene from <strong><em>The Normal Heart</em></strong>
(Photo by: David Wilson)
Morgan Lange (Tommy Boatwright) and Tim Garcia (Mickey Marcus) in a scene from The Normal Heart

Working on a unit set designed by Gilbert Johnson (with lighting by Sean Keehan, costumes by David F. Draper, and video designed by Lawrence Dillon), Fisher has done a solid job of directing The Normal Heart. Because Kramer had to cram his script with a lot of necessary exposition, seeing the play again makes one realize how difficult it is for one person to direct The Normal Heart while attempting to fill the shoes of an irascible character who is constantly seething with anger.

Fisher received strong support from Tim Garcia, Morgan Lange, Benoit Monin, and Jeremy Alan Howard, with Robert Zelenka's characterization of Ned's straight brother, Ben Weeks, and Leticia Duarte's portrayal of Dr. Emma Brookner adding a sense of heterosexual balance to the play's tensions. Jeremy Cole is especially moving as Felix.

Benoit Monin (Bruce Niles), Tim Garcia (Mickey Marcus), Morgan Lange (Tommy Boatwright), and John Fisher (Ned Weeks) in a sce
(Photo by: David Wilson)
Benoit Monin (Bruce Niles), Tim Garcia (Mickey Marcus), Morgan Lange (Tommy Boatwright), and John Fisher (Ned Weeks) in a scene from The Normal Heart

The astonishingly relevant aspect of this production (which could not have been predicted when it was in the planning stages), is how horribly The Normal Heart mirrors the political insensitivity to human suffering seen in recent events. As I write this column, more than 50 days have passed since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20. During that period, horrified Americans have witnessed the Trump administration trivialize the storm's impact ("This is really a good news story," stated one White House official), dehumanize the American citizens who live, work, and pay taxes in Puerto Rico, and do its best to belittle a burgeoning health and humanitarian crisis with malice aforethought.

Performances of The Normal Heart continue through November 25 at the Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets).

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Although well directed and gamely acted, the material in the Left Coast Theatre Company's newest anthology of short plays was not as strong as usual. The concept behind The Morning After is simple enough to serve as a springboard for ideas:

"Much of our lives are defined by big events: weddings, funerals, breakups, proposals, birthdays, coming out. But sometimes it’s the morning after that really changes our lives. This collection of shorts showcases the hilarity, the joy, the grief, the angst, and the uncertainty of the morning after the big event."

Francis Poulenc's one-act opera, La Voix Humaine, is based on a play by Jean Cocteau in which a woman has her final phone conversation with a lover who has left her for someone else (during their conversation, she tells him that she has attempted suicide). First performed in Paris on February 6, 1959 by Denise Duval, it has since become a showcase for intensely dramatic sopranos like Julia Migenes, Jessye Norman, and Magda Olivero.

Written by Neil Higgins and directed by Erica Andracchio, The Proposal finds a severely hungover Eric (Paul Renolis) waking up the morning after his longtime boyfriend has proposed to him. Unfortunately, following the big moment, one of Eric's friends took him out for a congratulatory drink (or two or three). The following morning he has no idea what he did the previous night, with whom he did it, or how he got home.

As Eric struggles to regain consciousness, his smartphone keeps pinging with texts bearing all kinds of alarming news. What follows is essentially a duet between a panicking gay man and his smartphone as he struggles to piece together the previous night's events by accessing his voicemail, reading incoming texts, and switching back and forth between desperate phone calls and dinner invitations. While the format of writing for an actor and the voices on a telephone is a challenging one, even with today's improved technology the results are less intriguing than one might think.

Paul Renolis as Eric in <em><strong>The Proposal</strong></em>
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)
Paul Renolis as Eric in The Proposal

Jen Coogan's well-intentioned musical, The Morning After My Family Fell Apart, focuses on a conservative Christian family whose parents decide that the best way to cope with the revelation that their teenage son is gay is to pack him up and ship him off to a summer camp that specializes in conversion therapy. While the mother (Courtney Russell) and father (Gary Giurbino) are willing to take the advice of two doctors (played by Chris Maltby and Mandy Brown), they haven't given much thought to how conversion therapy might destroy the personality, artistic impulses, and more lovable qualities of their son, Mark (Donny Goglio). Directed by ShawnJ West, this ambitious piece imploded pretty quickly because of a weak musical score and a protagonist with a limited ability to stay on pitch.

Gary Giurbino, Donny Goglio, and Courtney Russell in a scene from <strong><em>The Morning After My Family Fell Apart</em></st
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)
Gary Giurbino, Donny Goglio, and Courtney Russell in a scene from The Morning After My Family Fell Apart

Three plays with larger casts fared better. Written by Richard S. Sargent and directed by Terry Maloney Haley, The Morning After Prom is a randy farce that takes place the morning after someone spiked the punch at Oceanside High School's prom. Unlike recent events, where the novelty has been LGBT prom kings and prom queens, at this particular dance the faculty got wasted and awoke the following morning to find themselves in compromising positions.

Steven (Stefin Collins) woke up clad only in shoulder pads and a black jockstrap. Although he swears he's not gay, another faculty member (Kai Brothers) found Steven to be a most pliable and eager bottom. Meanwhile, as Judy (Gabrielle Motarjemi) and Kim (Kim Saunders) come to their senses, they must face the fact that they had a much better time than they had expected to at their school's prom.

Kim (Kim Saunders) and Judy (Gabrielle Motarjemi) wake up to some awkward realizations in <strong><em>The Morning After Prom<
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)
Kim (Kim Saunders) and Judy (Gabrielle Motarjemi) wake up to some awkward realizations in The Morning After Prom

In Rita Long's mischievous King For A Day, after a night enhanced by psychedelic drugs Ariel (Krystie Piamonte) confesses to her butch lover, Pam (Kaitlyn McCoy), that she has always fantasized about being able to have a penis for 24 hours. Pam's panicky response triggers a desperate phone call to her gay brother, Stevie (Ryan Engstrom) and his lover, Sam (Gary Giurbino), for advice on how to deal with her latest relationship crisis. As directed by Geoffrey Malveaux, King For A Day shows the value of having close friends and family who know enough about your past to call bullshit on self-righteous fits of indignation.

Gary Giurbino, Ryan Engstrom, Kaitlyn McCoy, and Krystie Piamonte in a scene from <strong><em>King For A Day</em></strong>
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)
Gary Giurbino, Ryan Engstrom, Kaitlyn McCoy, and Krystie Piamonte in a scene from King For A Day

A second play by Neil Higgins entitled My Fairy Drag Mothers focuses on a young gay man named Sam (Ryan Engstrom) who has just had his first experience in drag. Upon awakening, he is greeted by two fairy drag mothers with radically different approaches to the glamorous fun and consciousness-raising responsibilities of getting all dolled up. The sparkling Gloriana (Paul Renolis) insists that a drag queen's wardrobe, entourage, and aura must be carefully planned if one is going to be feted and rewarded with free drinks and lots of attention. By contrast, the statuesque and outrageously put together Ur (Nick Leonard) wants to make sure that Sam knows the historical importance of drag in gay history and the lessons that must be learned if he is interested in being politically correct as well as a strong visual presence.

Director Christian Heppinstall struggled to overcome the play's weighty polemics because, despite the best efforts of Gloriana and Ur, Sam is obviously at the stage of discovery where "Girls just want to have fun."

Paul Renolis (Gloriana), Ryan Engstrom (Sam), and Nick Leonard (Ur) in a scene from <strong><em>My Fairy Drag Mothers</em></s
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)
Paul Renolis (Gloriana), Ryan Engstrom (Sam), and Nick Leonard (Ur) in a scene from My Fairy Drag Mothers

In a delightful twist, the two strongest plays on the menu were the ones that only involved women. First published in 1989, Lesléa Newman's book, Heather Has Two Mommies, has been described by Google Books as "the first lesbian-themed children's book ever published." Since its publication it has frequently been challenged by conservative Christians as being inappropriate material for inclusion in libraries.

Directed by Allie Moss, Hannah Vaughn's poignant The Morning After Alex Leaves depicts two lesbians on the brink of empty nest syndrome. Lori (Kim Saunders) and Sandy (Anastasia Durbala) have just said good-bye to their teenage daughter after dropping her off at college. While Sandy tries to keep her partner grounded, Lori keeps obsessing about Alex's ability to survive without her helicopter mother hovering nearby.

I found Vaughn's play especially refreshing in the way it took a situation commonly faced by heterosexual parents and showed how the very same emotions and instincts play out with two lesbian mothers. It might prove to be a powerful companion piece to Dav Pilkey's 2006 book, Mommy Has Two Heathers (in which a school librarian invites George and Harold to read Heather Has Two Mommies).

Anastasia Durbala and Kim Saunders as two lesbian moms in <strong><em>The Morning After Alex Leaves</em></strong>
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)
Anastasia Durbala and Kim Saunders as two lesbian moms in The Morning After Alex Leaves

By far, the best piece on the program was Adam Szudrich's One Night Fran and the Morning After. Slyly directed by Christopher Chase, it depicts three women (at different stages of their lives) who have answered a personal ad by someone named "Fran."

  • Rachel (Courtney Russell) is a shallow young party girl who, after getting dumped by her girlfriend due to her low "empathy quotient (EQ)," found an older woman named Fran on Tinder.
  • Holly (Mandy Brown) is less concerned about her looks, "I'm so hungry I could eat a vegan," is trying to recover from a failed relationship, and remains hopeful that a woman close to her age will be able to recognize her inner beauty. She found Fran on OKCupid.com.
  • Marie (Kim Saunders) is an older, wiser, professional married woman who was approached by Fran on LinkedIn.com. Marie chooses to believe that she's approaching her date with the younger Fran as a potential mentoring situation.

Szudrich's play is blessed with wit, style, a solid premise, and a stunningly layered performance by Kim Saunders as an older woman on the prowl.

Courtney Russell, Mandy Brown, and Kim Saunders in a scene from <strong><em>One Night Fran and the Morning After</em></strong
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)
Courtney Russell, Mandy Brown, and Kim Saunders in a scene from One Night Fran and the Morning After

While this collection of short plays had some noticeable weak points, it did a beautiful job of showing off the versatility of actors Ryan Engstrom and Kim Saunders. Performances of The Morning After continue through November 18 at the Shelton Theatre (click here for tickets).

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