Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for June 2009

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com June 14 2009 11:00 PM ET

So how about them Tonys, huh? If you skipped them or somehow missed host Neil Patrick Harris's tongue-in-cheek promotional tour, you probably still know that the 63rd annual Tony Awards honored the guys and dolls of the past Broadway season on Sunday, June 7. But when it came to the Great White Way, the only thing more dismal than the telecast's production values was the month of suspense leading up to the event. Nominations were announced on the morning of May 5, kicking off a torturous period when nothing new opens on Broadway — essentially the theatrical equivalent of filmdom's post-Oscar eligibility cut-off culture drought. Many thrifty theatergoers wait patiently until the winners are chosen before dropping their hard-earned dough on a three-figure ticket, but by that point, avid show queens like me have already seen all the Main Stem marvels. In either case, it's the perfect time to explore New York's gayest off- and off-off-Broadway offerings. So explore I did, sifting through treacly clichés, sinful stereotypes, and gratuitous nudity, searching for a sparkly sequin in the smallest of venues.

With The Temperamentals, a drama about Harry Hay's 1950 founding of the Mattachine Society, out playwright Jon Marans schooled the silly children who thought gay activism began with the Stonewall riots. "Temperamental" was gay-code for "homosexual," and homos all over town buzzed over Ugly Betty 's Michael Urie as organization co-founder Rudi Gernreich, an Austrian designer who notoriously designed the first topless swimsuit. (Urie showed off a snug square-cut onstage.) While his accent was a little "Now is zee time on Sprockets vhen vee dance," I was so impressed with his performance that I tweeted @michaelurie after the sold-out opening night to tell him. He didn't tweet back. And why should he? It's not like I'm Bernadette Peters, who, unlike Betty stars Tony Plana and Ana Ortiz, had "reserved" seats for the occasion. The limited engagement, which ended May 18 at the Barrow Group Studio, was actually sold out every show, but the theater only had 40 seats, and tickets were just $18. It reopened June 10 for a four-week run in a larger space at the same location. Great, now I'll never hear from Mr. Urie.

There were no stars at the equally packed May 31 opening of Thank You For Being a Friend: The Musical — except maybe for the horrified ghost of Bea Arthur. An unauthorized Golden Girls parody playing Sundays through July 12 at the Kraine Theater, Nick Brennan's and Luke Jones's scandalous spoof avoids copyright infringement by naming its old broads "Dorothea," "Blanchet," "Roz," and "Sophie." In case you didn't guess, they're nearly all done by dudes with dead-on comic impersonations. As if sloppy drag weren't enough to appease the queer East Village crowd, the conflict comes when the ladies learn that their loud, orgy-hosting neighbor is none other than Lance Bass (twinky actor Jody Wood, who put his Manhunt bio in lieu of his professional bio in the photocopied program). Only the Shady Oaks talent show can settle the score between the girls and gays. Trumping the silly-string-as-semen sight gags, "Dorothea," in the musical's ultimate "what, too soon?" plot twist, receives fellatio from a leather cub after getting gender reassignment surgery. If Betty White drops dead next week, these friends are to blame!

Tweaking gay stereotypes in a cleaner, classier way, Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall opened June 3 and closes July 5 at Playwrights Horizons. (According to the program, A-listers like Elton John and Sarah Jessica Parker contributed $5,000 toward the Naked Angels-produced play, so you know it's good!) Luke is younger and hotter than live-in boyfriend Adam, but their biggest problems stem from their polar-opposite religious beliefs: Yep, it's your classic Atheist-boy-meets-Christian-boy love story starring Patrick Breen and Patrick Heusinger (Lord Marcus on Gossip Girl). Not only is Luke not out to his family, he still prays after sex, hoping he'll be saved if he makes amends with God before Judgment Day. (During one of the couple's debates, Luke argues that if repentant, Matthew Shepard's killers might reach heaven before Matthew.) A faith-clashing confrontation is unavoidable when a car accident lands Luke in the hospital. But in a show full of characters in need of a firm shoulder-shaking, you may want to bitch slap Luke's buddy Brandon, who'll have sex with black men yet won't fall in love for the sake of his Lord.

I would've slapped myself silly had I skipped the Pearl Theatre Company's intoxicating revival of Tennessee Williams's rarely produced Vieux Carré, which shuttered June 14 at Theater 80. Set in a dilapidated French Quarter boarding house, it's his most autobiographical and gayest work. In one early scene, a tubercular old lecher named Nightingale encourages our unnamed protagonist, a writer, to lay back and receive pleasure while he fantasizes about a previous fling. Then there's the Stanley Kowalskian neighbor who wouldn't dare mess around with a man — for less than $100, that is. And don't forget the downstairs gay tenant who drives the landlady batty by hosting loud gay orgies. (Where are those Golden Girls when you need 'em?) Williams began writing Vieux Carré in 1939 when he first moved to New Orleans and resided at 722 Toulouse Street, but it didn't bow on Broadway until 1977 (closing after only five performances); therefore, it's unique as an "early" and a "late" play, reflective of both an emerging young artist and a seasoned playwright nearing the end of his illustrious career.

Another prolific gay playwright, Craig Lucas, shook up the Public Theater with The Singing Forest, a dense and daring work about dark family secrets that closed on May 17. With three long acts shifting between New York in 2000 and WWII-era Europe (and most actors double-cast), it was a fascinating hot mess that explored Freudian "daddy" issues and the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. Olympia Dukakis starred as Loë, an alcoholic phone-sex operator, and Q ueer As Folk' s Randy Harrison appeared as a barista linked to two horny male psychiatrists. Taking Woodstock' s Jonathan Groff (who portrayed a gay soldier in Lucas's Prayer for my Enemy ) played Loë's gay brother and a straight guy hired to impersonate Loë's wealthy gay grandson to find him an analyst. Not following? Focus on this: Those who missed Groff's bare bottom in Spring Awakening could see it (and more) here in a totally unnecessary steam room scene. Yet the moment forever etched in my brain is the one where Dukakis (a woman in her late-70s, mind you) got leisurely "raped" from behind by Harrison as a Nazi officer.

Another Gay Movie star Michael Carbonaro also stripped down (to his boxers, at least) and flexed his acting muscles in a tedious revival of Jonathan Marc Sherman's "he said, he said" drama Sophistry, which closed May 29 at the Beckett Theatre. Carbonaro famously passed on Another Gay Sequel, but the role of Jack, a maybe-gay college student who accuses his alcoholic gay philosophy professor of sexual harassment, must've seemed like a wiser career move — especially since the original 1993 off-Broadway production of Sophistry starred up-and-comers Calista Flockhart, Steve Zahn, Ethan Hawke, and Anthony Rapp. Will this revival cast yield the next Ally McBeal or whatever Zahn's best known for? Unlikely. But Carbonaro was captivating as both drugged-out seducer and terrified victim, depending on whose conflicting recollection he had to reenact in flashback. Btdubs, we never found out who was lying. And near the end, two "straight" buds kissed while swigging whiskey in a "wtf?" moment suggesting that "shit happens" when you're drunk, so maybe neither man's story was completely accurate.

But the hottest same-sex stage smooch of the entire season was seen in Mark Schultz's The Gingerbread House, a licorice-black dramedy that rattled the Rattlestick Theater through May 10. Jason Butler Harner and Sarah Paulson (a.k.a. Cherry Jones' girlfriend) starred as middle-class suburbanites Brian and Stacey, who literally sold their two kids in an attempt to regain their pre-parental bliss. Oozing musky, hairy-chested sex appeal, Will & Grace 's Bobby Cannavale played Brian's smarmy, unhappily married work colleague Marco, who "brokers the offspring-capital exchange" on the Albanian grey market before leveraging Brian's career advancement for sexual favors. (If it had promised plot twists like that, ABC never would've cancelled Paulson's and Cannavale's Cupid redux!) A drunken pass at a bar ("It's just guy stuff," Marco assured Brian as they passionately sucked face) quickly turned into a full-blown secret affair. In other words, the play's child-selling premise wasn't the only thing hard to swallow. Zing! Seriously, though, the whole scenario was so steamy I almost tweeted @michaelurie just to tell him about it.

A collaboration between the creators of Contact and the Grey Gardens songwriters, Happiness, which closed June 7, wasn't exactly a match made in heaven at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater. In this twee musical about life, love, and the pursuit of you-know-what, the stalled subway car in which nine quirky New Yorkers were stuck turned out to be a purgatorial holding cell. Yep, they were dead. And with the help of an otherworldly train conductor, the recently deceased had to recall the happiest memory of their lives (which materialized in a production number) so they could exit and spend eternity in that instant. The least magical "moment" was actually the clichéd token gay one: In a hospital room, an André Leon Talley-esque interior designer comforted his mismatched dying lover with a wistful "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation" serenade: "The night on Fire Island that drifted into day. The ferry boat to fairy bliss across the great South Bay." If only the makeup team had used a less-is-more approach when it came to the patient's Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions. Stand clear of the closing doors, please!