Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for September 2009

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com September 21 2009 1:15 PM ET

OK, so here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the New York International Fringe Festival but were afraid I’d write my next “Seat Filler” about it if you asked. Launched in 1997, FringeNYC, the largest multi-arts festival in North America, took over Manhattan’s downtown theater scene August 14–30 in its 13th year. Each entry from around the world played five performances spread over the 16-day fest, and more than 40 shows qualified as being of special LGBT interest out of 201 total entries hosted by 18 venues. Sure, you always risk seeing some major crap, but what do you expect for $15 a ticket?

My favorite part of Fringe isn’t the possible discovery of the next Urinetown, which transferred to Broadway after debuting at the fest in 1999; I prefer the excitement of pouring over the cheesy show summary blurbs on the festival schedule to map out my attendance itinerary. My original plan was to see as many gay-themed productions as possible in two weeks, but then I remembered my low threshold for painfully low-budget theater. So by immediately nixing lesbian dramas (I’ll make it up to you next week, gals!) and grossly self-indulgent autobiographical solos, I narrowed my list down to 10 buzzed-about shows, which seemed like a respectable round number. Long hangover story short, I only made it to nine. Whatevs.

The first show I caught was The Boys Upstairs, Jason Mitchell’s sassy sex comedy about a group of cocktail-sipping gay roomies in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen ’hood — “the new Chelsea,” as one reminds the audience. Village Voice intern Josh is looking for love, stoner Seth accidentally shits his older boyfriend’s sheets, and Ashley, the flaming whore who inexplicably gets the most action of all, is a love child of Blanche Devereaux and Tara from True Blood. There’s also a hot new downstairs neighbor of indeterminate sexuality and a successful gimmick in which a fifth actor plays all the boyfriends, dates, and tricks, including a Don’t Tell Mama employee who only speaks in show tunes.

The SoHo Playhouse sold out almost every performance after the play’s shirtless stars snagged the cover of local gay bar rag Next, and the promise of skin was definitely fulfilled. With its many references to universal gay dilemmas and local gay nightlife, it was easy to see why the show was so popular with slutty club rats who watch Bravo religiously but probably don’t see a lot of professional theater. As a Hell’s Kitchen resident and avid theatergoer who’s promiscuity is now comfortably in the past, I don’t think my eyes have ever rolled so far back in their sockets.
 
If The Boys Upstairs taught me nothing else it’s that there’s a finite number of “bottom” jokes in the world, and I’m pretty sure I heard them all used again in America's Next Top Bottom: Cycle 5! at the Actors’ Playhouse. The Hollywood import, in which the audience votes by ballot on the winner, features seven “ass-piring” contestants who “stretch” themselves in various challenges because they want to “get it in the end.” See what they do there?AMERICA'S NEXT TOP BOTTOM: CYCLE 5! X560 (EFRAIN SCHUNIOR) | ADVOCATE.COM

All outrageous femmes, the boys get quizzed to test such essential bottom skills as dancing and “minding other people’s business.” Just barely holding it all together is Upright Citizens Brigade alum Pete Zias as legendary ’90s club kid Teddy Teddy and Drew Droege in tragic drag as messy hostess Trina Sugg. Imagine my giddy excitement when I discovered halfway through the show that Droege voices Feathers in the “Planet Unicorn” Web series. Give it up for Feathers! 

1 pixel theater | ADVOCATE.COMEfrain Schunior has creator, director, and producer credit here, but it’s his cast’s ad-lib skills that make this show tops. Every stereotype and shade of West Coast pillow-biter is hilariously represented, including a bedazzled Mariah Carey fanatic named Glitter, but I voted for Vance Pine’s Harajuku Sulu, a gaysian who wears a Star Trek T-shirt to honor his heritage. Too bad the SilverDaddies.com crowd at my early afternoon performance crowned the cuter Christopher Grant Pearson’s ultra-stylish “Dimples.”

Now doesn’t Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party sound like it would be equally hilarious? Well, it was very popular at the HERE Arts Center, but it wasn’t anything to celebrate.ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S BIG, GAY DANCE PARTY X560 (ZABRINA TIPTON) | ADVOCATE.COM

Fully intact from a recent San Francisco run, Aaron Loeb’s misleadingly titled political comedy covers the fallout after a teacher in Honest Abe's Illinois hometown is put on trial for suggesting to her students that Lincoln might’ve been gay. As if it weren’t bad enough that we have to see the same tedious events unfold through the eyes of the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and a gay New York Times reporter, the audience is asked to vote on the order in which they view the three separate acts in a totally unnecessary time-chewing gimmick.

To be fair, the whole cast does briefly dance around wearing long beards and top hats between acts, but the show only gels when it drops the forced fluffiness and takes itself seriously. The trial threatens to expose the teacher’s lesbian relationship, and drama escalates when the prosecutor’s closeted gay son blames his gay bashing on a mob of liberal protesters. A scene in which the son opens up to the flirty reporter in a cornfield is especially moving, but two and a half hours with two intermissions? I probably wouldn’t last two hours at an actual gay dance party! However, the show won one of only three FringeNYC Outstanding Play awards, so what do I know?

Much more deserving of its Outstanding Play award is Buddy Thomas’s Devil Boys From Beyond, an all-male spoof of 1950s sci-fi B-movies at the Actors’ Playhouse. The premise is shamelessly silly: Rival reporters try to scoop the story when aliens from a gay planet have invaded Lizard Lick, Fla., and replaced the old townsmen with sexy young muscle men to impregnate the townswomen and propagate their race. We don’t actually discover the sexuality and motives of the invaders until the final scene, but it sure doesn’t spoil the fun to know that titillating twist up-front.DEVIL BOYS FROM BEYOND X560 (DIXIE SHERIDAN) | ADVOCATE.COM

Fans of the drag genre send-ups perfected by Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam will have a devil of a good time watching these boys. In fact, adding class and maturity to the sometimes shaky production are Andy Halliday, a longtime member of Charles Busch’s Theater-in-Limbo, and Everett Quinton, a member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company for 21 years. But I strongly encourage you to Google professional models Jeff Riberdy and Jacques Mitchell, who look damn good while uttering a few monotone lines as the scantily clad alien lovers. Thank me later.

Then, just when I thought every subject, taboo or tame, had already been musicalized, I caught a performance of For the Love of Christ! at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Predominantly set in the Bottoms Up gay bathhouse in 1979 and inspired by the story of the AIDS epidemic’s Patient Zero, this musical tells the cautionary tale of a French-Canadian airline steward named Jésus who gives an unhappily married man the courage to ditch his family (including a son who happens to be a sassy black cross-dresser) for short-shorts and homosexual liberation. The musical’s writer and composer Ben Knox also cast himself in the husband role, but the spotlight is stolen by former Star Search champ Marty Thomas as the troubled family priest, complete with an attraction to altar boys.

FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST X560 (WALTER MCBRIDE) | ADVOCATE.COM
At its best, For the Love of Christ! is like an unholy musical union of Saved! and Terrence McNally’s The Ritz, but the uneven songs will need some divine intervention before it rises again. In fact, the whole show completely goes to hell (literally and figuratively) when infected monkeys drop on the scene in some sort of gay-us ex machina, but at least the monkeys are played by four adorable pocket-twinks wearing American Apparel underwear and matching tube socks. As it turns out, I can forgive just about anything for cute boys in undies.

Next, I headed down to the Cherry Lane Theatre to catch His Greatness, a terrific three-hander that imagines two possible days late in the life of Tennessee Williams. Never referred to by name and called only “The Playwright” in the program, the cantankerous Williamsian character has traveled to Vancouver with his fey assistant for the premiere of his latest play, which the audience seemed to enjoy but critics tore apart. It reminded me of the stories I’ve read about Williams’s late plays Vieux Carré and Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which opened and closed quickly on Broadway in 1977 and 1980, respectively. Critics seemed to agree that although these efforts were far from the caliber of Streetcar and Menagerie, curious die-hard fans might enjoy seeing them anyway for brief flashes of the playwright’s former glory.

HIS GREATNESS X560 (NEILSON BARNARD) | ADVOCATE.COM

FringeNYC favorite and GLAAD Award–winning Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor shows his own budding greatness with an ear for intelligent, witty, lyrical dialogue to which Williams himself would surely raise his whiskey glass. Peter Goldfarb and Daniel Domingues are both brilliant and heartbreaking as the playwright and his faithful yet tiring caretaker, but the breakout star is the handsome Michael Busillo as an animated young escort who comes between the two longtime companions with his seductive charms and a big bag of coke. Seen off-Broadway in gay-themed shows like Texas Homos and Joy, Busillo is the go-to guy when a role calls for a talented actor who must strip down to his drawers, and he most certainly doesn’t disappoint here.

I didn’t think His Greatness could be topped until I stopped by the Players Theatre to see Notes on the Land of Earthquake & Fire from writer-director Jason Schafer, best known as the screenwriter of Trick. In this smart, surprisingly dark Hollywood satire, Chad, an ambitious gay assistant, unsuccessfully attempts to juggle a social life and the outrageous demands of Alan, his movie studio bigwig boss, without bursting into tears. When Alan’s spoiled preteen daughter isn’t also pushing Chad’s buttons, Chad flirts with a handsome young producer named Shane who shows up drunk at Alan’s beach house, promises Chad a better job, and passes out naked after popping too many pills.

 NOTES ON THE LAND OF EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE X560 (JASON CHEN) | ADVOCATE.COM

As sexual politics and power struggles rage like the fires closing in around them, some smoke begins to clear: Is Alan so hard on Chad because of homophobia, or is there more to Alan’s relationship with Shane than meets the eye? Juicy stuff! The play, which earned Schafer a FringeNYC Playwrighting award, pretty much imagines how David Mamet might write if he were gay — or what Entourage would be like if Ari Gold were having a secret affair with E.

1 pixel theater | ADVOCATE.COMAs I’ve already mentioned, I tried to avoid solo performances like H1N1, but somehow I got creamed by Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant, a one-man show from Orlando written and performed by David Lee. I usually enjoy drag celebrity impersonations, so I stopped by the Actors’ Playhouse hoping to be tickled while getting schooled on the Lord-loving, homo-hating, orange juice–schilling beauty queen’s shameful legacy. But in blending archival footage and recordings from the ’70s with fake newscasts and clever theatrics like subbing a Ken doll for Rolling Stone reporter Ken Kelley, Lee succeeds in celebrating a somewhat sympathetic Bryant for all her sunny stupidity. After all, she united the LBGT community before Carrie Prejean was even born.

PIE-FACE! THE ADVENTURES OF ANITA BRYANT X560 (DIXIE LEE) | ADVOCATE.COM

Unfortunately, I happened to be at Lee’s final Fringe performance, a technical disaster he’ll not soon forget without intensive psychotherapy. Because his show’s so highly dependent on video clips and voice-overs, a show-halting computer meltdown made him break character to lament that both his agent and an Ugly Betty bigwig were also there to witness the horror. Yet the genial audience stuck by Lee even after we were forced to repeat a sing-along of David Allan Coe’s “Fuck Anita Bryant.” Later, when he shared the story of a concert appearance where an audience made Bryant cry by standing up and turning their backs on her as she sang, nearly the entire audience at the intimate Actors’ Playhouse instinctively pulled the same stunt as a teary-eyed Lee stood centerstage, lip-synching “God Bless America” — one of the most awkwardly moving moments I’ve ever experienced.

On the last day of the fest I caught the revival of Jonny McGovern’s GLAAD Award–nominated Dirty Stuff at the Actors’ Playhouse. Yes, I know it’s another one-man situation, but the “Soccer Practice” singer has proved himself a master of creating gut-busting characters as star of Logo's Big Gay Sketch Show. Besides, the popular podcaster was also the one who brought The Wendy Williams Show’s alleged discrimination against Erickatoure Aviance to Advocate.com’s attention, so I was sure to work a fierce daytime look for an afternoon performance of Dirty Stuff. DIRTY STUFF X560 (COURTESY PROJECT PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

With DJ Tekshur churning out beats onstage in bejeweled headphones, McGovern broke a manly sweat as he sharply popped between alter egos like a wealthy Arab druggie and an awkward closet case in desperate need of a Prada makeover. But the funniest misfits to materialize from his dirty mind were trailer park princess Lurleen and washed-up blaxploitation flick diva Chocolate Puddin’, who cut and clawed over a fake Chanel purse while they duet on “The Bag Is Mine,” a Brandy vs. Monica homage. With cleverness and charisma like his, it’s no wonder the crowd-pleasing Gay Pimp was tapped to host FringeNYC’s annual Gay Highlights Party at Vlada Lounge.

My second-favorite part of Fringe is the end, but only to see which shows are deemed worthy enough to extend as part of the FringeNYC Encore Series, which runs now through September 27. This year His Greatness, The Boys Upstairs, Devil Boys From Beyond, and Notes on the Land of Earthquake & Fire all got the green light to linger for five more performances each.

For next month’s column -- listen up, ladies! -- I’ll have the lowdown on a lesbian Lizzie Borden rock musical, off-Broadway’s bisexual answer to Inglourious Basterds, Nora Ephron’s so-called “Vagina Monologues without the vaginas” starring Rosie O’Donnell, and much, much more. As always, I’ll save you a front-row seat!