Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for December 2009

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com December 16 2009 10:10 AM ET

Call me an old Grinch, but I hate holiday shows. I’ll take wrapped packages and hung stockings any day of the year, but Christmas-centric theater has always been a pine needle in my side. Unfortunately, ’tis the season in Manhattan for enough Scrooge spoofs, carol-crammed cabaret, and Hanukkah high jinks to make a tourist forget all about the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

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Factor in my completely rational fear of self-indulgent one-man shows and low-budget queer theater, you can guess how hard I initially tried to avoid Jeffrey Solomon’s solo mockumentary Santa Claus Is Coming Out, which jingles all the way through December 20 at the Kirk Theater. But trust that I’ll be sending a thank-you card this Christmas to Focus on the Family, who recently accused Solomon of “using shock tactics to expose children to homosexuality” and alerted me to his magically merry and moving performance. Making Tiger Woods look like the Tooth Fairy, Solomon cleverly creates a scandal in which Santa is gay and Mrs. Claus is just a beard hired by his Jewish agent. Solomon’s other characters include a questioning little boy begging for a doll and the empathetic Rudolph, who heads up the workshop’s Misfit Task Force.

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Also inciting a minor conservative uproar is drag performer Mimi Imfurst, whose hilarious holiday show Madonna’s Christmas Celebration imagines the Holy Mother as a boozy lounge singer who got knocked up by God as a teen and, like that other Madonna, made up her mind to keep her baby. Described as “worse than the sin of abortion” by the Catholic Advocacy Coalition and as “despicable, blasphemous and abominable trash” by DailyCatholic.org, the fourth annual installment of Mimi’s satisfyingly sacrilegious satire kicked off a six-city tour at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on December 6 (visit VirginMaryLive.com  for remaining dates). Mimi may be going to hell in a handbag just by singing reworked pop songs — “Fast Mule,” a comic take on Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” is among the more inspired bits — but it’s definitely a trip worth taking.

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There was no time for more holiday fluff what with gay dramas promising full-frontal nudity like Loaded, which is raising loaded questions about modern gay relationships at the Lion Theater through January 23. Tom Ford might call it “universal,” but Loaded — which finds out what happens when online f-buddies stop having sex and start getting real — is as gay as it gets. Playing the 47-year-old daddy is gay actor Kevin Spirtas, best known as Dr. Craig Wesley on Days of Our Lives and as Hugh Jackman’s standby in The Boy From Oz, and straighty Scott Kerns plays his 24-year-old trick. Both characters are HIV-positive and annoying. Out playwright Elliot Ramón Potts may’ve bitten off more than he could chew with his first play, but I won’t disparage it, especially since we’ve all met “douchefags” (thanks, Details!) just like the ones he created.

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One of my favorite gay characters ever can be found in Melissa James Gibson’s wise and wickedly wordy This, which extended through January 3 at Playwrights Horizons after The New York Times called it “the best new play to open off-Broadway this fall.” Replacing the lyme disease-suffering Parker Posey, Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Julianne Nicholson stars as Jane, a struggling widow and mom. Her circle of old college pals includes her alcoholic gay confidant Alan, played to eccentric perfection by Dirty Sexy Money’s Glenn Fitzgerald. “I’ve always wanted to be the woman gay men would want to have sex with if they wanted to have sex with women and weren’t gay,” Jane tells Alan, who sums himself up as “subversive by impulse but lazy by nature.” Louis Cancelmi, who played gay in Craig Lucas’s The Singing Forest, costars as a bisexual Frenchman.

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Featured in The Advocate’s “Forty Under 40” issue this summer, Wig Out! playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney shows off his skills with The Brother/Sister Plays, a trilogy of connected yet stand-alone plays performed in rep through December 20 at the Public Theater. Part 1, which I didn’t see, consists of In the Red and Brown Water, the story of a girl stuck in the Louisiana projects. Part 2, which I saw and loved, includes The Brothers Size and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, which feature many of the same characters but focus on sexual identity. In Brothers a man reconnects with the friend he seduced in prison. In Marcus that same man’s son explores his own “sweet” tendencies with ghetto-fab girlfriends and a down-low thug. Throughout, McCraney adds poetic spoken-word flair by having his characters announce their own stage directions.

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Also theatrically heightened, Chisa Hutchinson’s She Like Girls takes a raw look at first lesbian love through December 30 at the Ohio Theater. The affecting Karen Eilbacher plays 16-year-old African-American Kia, who falls hard for feisty classmate Marisol (the excellent Karen Sours), much to the horror of her gay-bashing best friend. It seems extreme to give poor Marisol a lump in her breast just so Kia can feel her up in the locker room, but I’ll forgive any missteps for the play’s outrageous dream sequences and Adam Belvo as a gay English teacher who stands up for himself after his car’s vandalized and who lectures his students about lesbian poet Adrienne Rich. Inspired by the 2003 shooting of a lesbian high school girl at a Newark bus stop, She Like Girls ends tragically, but the real tragedy will be if it isn’t performed for inner-city students.

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Lesbians literally rule in Ann Marie Healy’s sci-fi-flavored What Once We Felt, which ended its world premiere (presented by LCT3, the new developmental initiative of Lincoln Center Theater) at the Duke on 42nd Street on November 22. The story centers on a writer who hopes to have her novel — a work of “biting satire and dystopian leanings” — published as the last printed book in the world. Men are extinct in this bleak future and women have been divided into two classes based on engineered gene perfection (unhealthy Tradepacks and privileged Keepers). In one subplot, a lesbian couple — though possibly lesbian only by default? — encounters a devastating glitch when “downloading a baby” by ordering a pregnancy pill online. Unsettling yet ultimately unsatisfying, this puzzling little play did make me think twice about buying that Kindle.

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Audiences are buzzing about stage fave Michael Cerveris’s nude scene and the buzz-worthy machine in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play). But the Lincoln Center production, which buzzes on Broadway through January 10 at the Lyceum Theatre, also boasts hot same-sex action. Set in the 1880s, when electricity was first becoming available, this terrific play takes its title from the room where Cerveris’s Dr. Givings treats “hysteria” in women by applying an electrified wand to their lady business. Escorted by her husband (played by The Temperamentals star Thomas Jay Ryan), one patient finds herself attracted to the unmarried assistant who helps with her treatments — sometimes manually. These clinically viewed big O's bring big laughs, particularly when Givings massages the prostate of a handsome artist played by Chandler Williams.

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A big O might’ve spiced up New Group’s painfully slow production of Kenneth Lonergan’s unnecessarily long play The Starry Messenger, which rambles on through December 19 at the Acorn Theater. But it’s probably a blessing that star Matthew Broderick remains blandly buttoned-up throughout as an astronomy teacher at Manhattan’s old Hayden Planetarium undergoing a midlife crisis and embarking on the most boring extramarital affair ever staged. That said, Lonergan has written some sparkling dialogue and monologues for his friend — all of which were adequately memorized by the time I saw the show, thanks. Broderick’s wife is skillfully played by upcoming True Blood star J. Smith Cameron, who played a lesbian in After the Night and the Music but no longer puts her crazy mom from The Rage: Carrie 2 in her program bio.

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Julie White won a Tony for playing a closeted actor’s lesbian agent in The Little Dog Laughed. Justin Kirk from Weeds is celebrated for gay roles in Love! Valour! Compassion! and Angels in America. And Mark-Paul Gosselaar will always be Zack Morris from Saved By the Bell. In one of those fortuitous alignments of the stars, these three bright talents now illuminate The Understudy, Theresa Rebeck’s middling play about the corruption of theater by celebrity obsession, which burns out January 17 at the Laura Pels Theatre. As the frustrated titular character, Kirk rehearses to cover Gosselaar’s action star in a fictional “lost” Kafka play. Playing the harried stage manager, White wrings laughs out of every line and gesture, but top billing should go to Gosselaar’s physique, for which tight blue jeans and snug black T-shirts were apparently invented.

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An ambitious understudy also vies for attention in So Help Me God! an All About Eve-y play now vamping at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through December 20. Penned by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who most famously authored the 1926 play on which the musical Chicago is based, So Help Me God! was derailed from its scheduled 1929 Broadway debut by the stock market crash and never published. The Mint Theater Company, which specializes in reviving lost treasures from yesteryear, has given this long-forgotten treasure the blessing of star Kristen Johnston, who is simply marvelous as demanding, mirror-smooching stage diva Lily Darnley. My Girl’s Anna Chlumsky also impresses as a naive ingenue threatening to steal Lily’s spotlight. Spotted at opening night: Andy Cohen and Ugly Betty duo Michael Urie and Becki Newton.

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Over the third weekend in November, Becki Newton and husband Chris Diamantopoulos, the tight-bodied little stud who played Debra Messing’s gay confidant in The Starter Wife, showed off their fine singing skills as the romantic leads in the City Center Encores! concert production of Girl Crazy. Also starring SNL alum Ana Gasteyer in the part that made Ethel Merman famous, the silly 1930 Gershwin musical (which was refashioned into 1992’s Crazy for You) basically uses a thin plot about New Yorkers on a Wild West dude ranch as an excuse to showcase lovely songs like “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You.” But this shamelessly old-fashioned musical also has a song called “Bronco Busters,” which features the lyric “On Western prairies we shoot the fairies,” and a ditty called “The Gay Caballero” that isn’t nearly as hot as you’d hope.

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Not all revivals are of shows from 80 years ago. When I first saw Ragtime in 1998, I sat in the very last row against the wall of the uppermost balcony in the cavernous Ford Center — without doubt the worst seat I’ve ever had to date. It didn’t matter because the musical, which out playwright Terrence McNally adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel about American class struggles at the turn of the 20th century, was a transcendent masterpiece. I had better seats at the new Broadway remount of the recent Kennedy Center revival, which is enjoying an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre, but I was disheartened to see that most of the visual fireworks have been stripped away. Luckily, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s moving score doesn’t need spectacle to soar — and if you didn’t see the original, you won’t know what you’re missing.
 

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Also tackling racial issues is, well, Race, David Mamet’s sharp, brutally frank legal drama now playing Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre and starring James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, and Richard Thomas. Predictably yet powerfully peppered with the c word, f word, and n word, Race, which Mamet also briskly directed, takes place in a law firm office where three lawyers — one black male, one white male, and one younger black female — agree to defend a wealthy white man charged with raping a black woman. Though the accusations are no laughing matter, it’s funny to hear Spader and Grier smartly lament the case’s hopelessness and the general futility of communication between the races. Washington, who’s already played two lesbians and one trans woman on film, admirably holds her own against her virile costars.

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Thanks in part to producers Jay-Z and Will Smith, Fela! the new Broadway musical celebrating the life of Nigerian revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, has transformed the Eugene O’Neill Theatre into the Shrine, Fela’s infamous Lagos nightclub. There’s a scary, somber edge to the political strife, but Fela! is mostly a colorful rump-shaking tribute to the Afrobeat legend with audience interaction. (Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon gleefully replicated clock-inspired hip thrusts the night I attended.) The bad news: A little Fela goes a long way, so two hours and 40 minutes is a schlep. The drums had nearly lulled me to sleep by the time Fela went to the ultraviolet-lit “other side” to visit his murdered mom, played by the luminous Lillias White — who was Jennifer Holliday’s understudy in Dreamgirls and played Effie in the 1987 revival.

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That, of course, takes us to the new national tour of Dreamgirls, which ended its month-long run at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater on December 12 before steppin’ to 15 more cities (see full schedule at DreamgirlsOnstage.com). Swiftly directed by 2009 Out100 honoree Robert Longbottom, who choreographed with So You Think You Can Dance regular Shane Sparks, this eye-popping yet simply staged revival of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s Supremes-inspired 1981 musical focuses on the costumes and kitsch, which I didn’t mind at all. American Idol finalist Syesha Mercado does a decent Deena, but you’re gonna love Moya Angela’s Effie, who has sass and soul to spare. The surprise showstopper here is “Listen” (added for Beyoncé in the 2006 film), which has been reconceived as a “dueling divas” duet for Effie and Deena.