By Brandon Voss
Originally published on Advocate.com August 17 2010 12:45 PM ET
As gay theatergoers sweat in anticipation of this fall’s Broadway premieres of David Hyde Pierce in La Bête, T.R. Knight in A Life in the Theatre, Cherry Jones in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and freakin’ Patti LuPone in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, some queer off-Broadway offerings and a few inspired Broadway cast changes provide a cool respite from the summer blahs.
Out writer-performer Marc Wolf was well-decorated for his 1999 off-Broadway debut of Another American: Asking and Telling, a solo docudrama on the subject of "don't ask, don't tell" shaped from more than 150 interviews with military personnel and civilian experts, both gay and straight. After touring the country, Wolf has remounted the show at the DR2 Theatre, wisely keeping Joe Mantello’s frank original direction and boldly choosing not to update his tour de force — aside from a few extra gray hairs. Wolf thoughtfully represents both sides of the hot-button argument with heartbreaking accounts of prejudice balanced by quirky characters and soldierly sexcapades. A portion of the proceeds from this powerful revival, which runs Mondays through August 30, supports charitable organizations like the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Secrets of the Trade won a GLAAD Award for Best New Play when it premiered in Los Angeles in 2008, so it’s no secret that this coming-of-age tale shouldn’t be missed at 59E59 Theaters, where it runs through September 4. Known for queer seriocomedies Twilight of the Golds and The Last Sunday in June, gay playwright Jonathan Tolins presents a poignant backstage peek at a 1980-1990 correspondence between a precocious theater queen, skillfully played by Brighton Beach Memoirs star Noah Robbins, and an irascible Broadway director, another juicy gay part for incomparable out actor John Glover. Though the play flirts with a sexual affair — a creepy back massage thankfully leads nowhere — it focuses on the complexities of mentorship while avoiding All About Eve cliché. Out actor Bill Brochtrup of NYPD Blue fame costars as the director’s droll, catty assistant.
A success at last summer’s Fringe Festival, Tales From the Tunnel, a tribute to New York City’s subway system, has pulled into the Bleecker Street Theatre with a terrific cast led by Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Rent’s original Angel. Based on interviews with hundreds of subway riders and workers conducted by out writer-directors James Valletti and Troy Diana, this series of sketches and monologues feels like a small token of gratitude to anyone who’s braved the underground’s most unsavory sights and scents. Among the homeless kooks and sassy clerks, passengers include a PFLAG mom and a typical Chelsea boy who smacks a hot guy in the head with his erection. In one vignette we hear a group’s disparate reactions to watching two men kiss: disgust, titillation, and admiration — all emotions that the audience experiences during this 90-minute joyride.
A more accomplished cast featuring Temperamentals standout Arnie Burton has strengthened Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party since last summer’s Fringe Fest, but it still doesn’t live up to its terrific title. Straight playwright Aaron Loeb’s strained, grossly unedited political comedy, which runs through September 5 at the Acorn Theatre, covers the fallout when a lesbian teacher in Honest Abe's Illinois hometown is put on trial for telling her students that Lincoln had a male bedmate. In an order voted on by the audience, we see the same events unfold from the view of the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and a gay New York Times reporter. The cast cuts up in beards and top hats between acts, but the show’s only fête-worthy when it shuns slapstick and takes itself seriously, as when the prosecutor’s closeted gay son opens up to the flirty reporter in a cornfield.
If Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis are on the guest list of your fantasy living-or-dead celebrity dinner party, make an appointment with Freud’s Last Session at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. Inspired by the bestselling book The Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi Jr., Mark St. Germain’s engrossing drama imagines a meeting of these great minds that may or may not have occurred in real life. Martin Rayner, who played a flamboyant gay actor in last year’s Gates of Gold, is phenomenal here as the legendary psychoanalyst who invites a pre-Narnia Lewis — the fetching Mark H. Dold — to his London study on the brink of World War II, just weeks before Freud’s death. Though their main debate is God’s existence, Freud pushes Lewis’s buttons by asking if he lives with a man, reassuring his mildly ruffled visitor that all human beings are intrinsically bisexual.
Though it has nothing to do with the Glee phenomenon, With Glee might be the sleeper hit of the summer. John Gregor’s buoyant musical, which runs through August 22 at the Kirk Theatre, beautifully captures the bond of five wayward teenage boys shipped off to a “bad kid” boarding academy in Maine. As he did with the gay WWII musical Yank!, director Igor Goldin works miracles with a small space and a spry male cast, which includes Zach Bandler, Max Spitulnik, Dan Lawler, and Christopher Davis Carlisle as a rich kid, a poor thief, a weirdo, and a pest — stereotypes tweaked for freshness. Cutie Jason Edward Cook is a standout as Kip, the ostensibly gay kid who finds it odd that his dad would straighten him out by sending him to an all-boys school. Kip’s not yet sure he’s gay, but he does have an Aspects of Love poster and the highest kicks in the chorus line.
After earning two Tonys for Memphis, out book-writer Joe DiPietro made a miraculous musical return with Falling for Eve, York Theatre Company’s likable follow-up to Yank! at the Theatre at Saint Peters. Based on David Howard’s play Adam Alone, this cleverly tweaked creation tale, which rested on August 8, imagined what might’ve ensued if only Eve hadn't eaten that forbidden apple in Eden. A heavenly, hummable score by Howard and Brett Simmons was worthy of praise, but Falling for Eve was truly blessed by The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hunk Jose Llana as the first man, who made his entrance in the buff before showing off all his God-given goods in a loincloth for the rest of the performance. And in a fun gimmick to portray God as genderless, the somewhat bitchy deity was portrayed by the sexy duo of Sasha Sloan and Rent alum Adam Kantor.
Transport Group transcended with its site-specific revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band earlier this year. Artistic director Jack Cummings III also unconventionally helmed See Rock City & Other Destinations, an enchanting pop-rock musical by Brad Alexander and Adam Mathias, which was staged through August 14 at the Duke on 42nd Street with portable outdoor chairs that audience members picked from a pile upon arrival. Linked by the theme of soul-searching sightseers at American tourist attractions, the spirit journey stalled after a breathtaking trio of songs about a young man’s ride to Rock City until two bratty boys — Stanley Bahorek and Bryce Ryness, who played Hair’s queer tribesman Woof — skip high school to visit Coney Island, where they share an unexpectedly intimate moment on a dark carnival ride that leaves them both spooked.
Bianca Leigh, a transgender entertainer featured in Transamerica, seemed born for the spotlight in A Night at the Tombs, an engaging solo show that ended its Thursdays-only stint August 5 at the Bowery Poetry Club. Directed by Tim Cusack for queer troupe Theatre Askew, Leigh’s monologue, which showcased sparkling original music by Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty and downtown performance artist Taylor Mac, chronicled her journey from Jersey to New York dominatrix club, where a hot cop busted her over a BJ. Not much happened during her brief incarceration at the Manhattan Detention Complex in 1987 — she’s sent to the men’s lockup, she flashes a breast for toilet paper — but it provided a sturdy framework for her musings on gender identity and the poor treatment of LGBT inmates. She also proved herself sharp as a stiletto in spite of various technical difficulties.
Put on your penis hats, ladies, because out director Trip Cullman is throwing the party of the season with Bachelorette. Leslye Headland’s blissfully boozy tragicomedy, which rages on through August 28 at Second Stage Uptown’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre, shines a harsh light on a group of messy mean girls in a fancy hotel room on the eve of their overweight girlfriend’s wedding. After discussing oral sex at length — “On a scale of one to 10, 1 being like you blow it kisses and 10 being you’re choking on vomit and semen” — the night gets more and more tragic with every second these lost souls smoke pot, snort coke, pop pills, and guzzle champagne straight from the bottle. “It” stage actresses Tracee Chimo, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Katherine Waterston, and Carmen M. Herlihy star with Dollhouse’s Fran Kranz and American Pie’s Eddie Kaye Thomas as the man-candy.
The last tenant of the Little Shubert Theatre was Rosie O’Donnell’s flop NBC variety show Rosie Live. Unfortunately, the venue’s luck hasn’t improved with Viagara Falls, a flaccid comedy by Lou Cutell and Joao Machado with direction by The Carol Burnett Show’s Don Crichton. Two wisecracking widowers and war buddies who pop blue pills to shtupp an aging hooker may sound like a promising premise, but neither the shaky actors — film vet Cutell, The Love Boat’s Bernie Kopell, and ’80s Tonight Show regular Teresa Ganzel — nor the dusty script rise to the occasion. And due in part to gaudy sequined jackets by legendary costume designer Bob Mackie, Cutell’s horny 77-year-old comes off like a retired drama teacher at a West Village piano bar. “On a scale of 1 to 10, this show is a 12!” raves Carol Burnett on the posters; maybe she thought “1” was best.
I’ll spare you my CliffsNotes synopses of Shakespeare in the Park’s 2010 selections, but suffice it to say that The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, which ran in rep through August 1 at the Delacorte Theater, made for a magically memorable season. The biggest draw was seeing Al Pacino in the pounds of flesh as Merchant’s Shylock, but the MVPs of both productions were The New Adventures of Old Christine’s Hamish Linklater and out Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who both imbued their clownish parts with contemporary panache and wound up in their undies. Never butching it up, Ferguson made bold choices that always worked, even when punctuating a sentence with a broken doll pose that would’ve made Tyra Banks proud. With only Pacino presently confirmed to reprise his role, Merchant transfers to Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre October 19.
Directed by Slipping scribe Daniel Talbott on a bare stage, Jonathan Blitstein’s thrillingly austere and provocatively perplexing play Keep Your Baggage With You (at all times), which wrapped a weeklong run August 14 in Theater for the New City’s inaugural Dream Up Festival, unloaded the deterioration of a friendship between “I love you, dudes” Dave and Greg through a series of brief scenes set over five years. Their ex-girlfriends, Julie and Ashley, become lovers — “If you want to attract straight women, you have to act like a man,” Ashley says — but Blitstein, who has an ear for honest dialogue, also suggests a latent sexual attraction between the bro-huggers: “Maybe we’re both gay,” Greg tells Dave, who later freaks Greg out with a kiss on the forehead. The whole cast — Nate Miller, Daniel Abeles, Laura Ramadei, and Molly Ward — should pack for Hollywood soon.
When Bartlett Sher’s Tony-winning revival of South Pacific sails into the sunset August 22, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic will have played 1,000 regular performances at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. I recently revisited the show to salute Tony winner Paulo Szot, the gay Brazilian baritone who’s back and better than ever as Emile de Becque before making his New York cabaret debut at Café Carlyle starting September 14. I caught Grease: You’re the One that I Want! winner Laura Osnes as Nellie Forbush, but Tony winner Kelli O’Hara has also returned in time for the August 18 Live from Lincoln Center PBS broadcast. Glee’s Matthew Morrison couldn’t get a hall pass to come play Lt. Joe Cable again, but sinewy replacement Andrew Samonsky has vocal chops to match his squinty sex appeal, and the American sailor chorus is just as steamy.
Has a major cast replacement ever truly made a whole show better than its original vision? Probably, but one would be hard-pressed to find a stronger example of such improvement than in the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night and set in early-20th-century Sweden, Sondheim’s sophisticatedly sentimental 1973 musical opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree, an aging actress, and Angela Lansbury as her prickly wheelchair-bound mother. After a brief hiatus, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch have made those roles their own, brightening Trevor Nunn’s shadowy staging with effortless humor and snap. Peters is subtler than her predecessor, but ol’ talk-singing Stritchie steals the show with somewhat anachronistic sass — even when flubbing her lines.
A musical tearjerker about a deteriorating suburban family, Next to Normal, which opened in April 2009 at the Booth Theatre and won the 2010 Pulitzer for drama, has also undergone major cast changes. Most notably, real-life spouses Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley have taken over for Tony winner Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer as manic-depressive mom Diana and her husband, Dan. Mazzie flawlessly belts Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s abnormally moving score, but she’s more subdued than Ripley, who does bat-shit crazy like no other. Likewise, the electric Kyle Dean Massey, who recently modeled for Out, is gentler than his predecessor, Howl’s Aaron Tveit, as “superboy” son Gabe. The show’s still sublime, but the overhaul has smoothed it out as though everyone took a Xanax, which might actually make the unconventional tuner more accessible for tourists.
For my next column, I’ll once again take the good and take the bad when I take on the 14th annual New York International Fringe Festival, attempting to sit through as many queer shows as is doctor-recommended for a discerning gay man of my age, weight, and height. As always, I’ll save you a seat!