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By John Thomason
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Part of the trick of producing plays is not only deciding what to stage but when. Some shows work better in the fall than the summer, some are hurt by financial bad times, others are helped by same. But all attempts to time a play's opening are still subject to the whims of chance -- unexpected events can crop up that either boost or blast a play's chances.
Fortunately for the Caldwell Theatre, artistic director Michael Hall's timing couldn't possibly be better for The Last Sunday in June. The play, which raises some interesting issues about gay life, opened just before the annual gay pride parade that traditionally takes place in New York City on the last Sunday in June (hence the title). Meanwhile, the original New York production is still running (as of this writing), a little booking coup in and of itself.
All of this surely was no coincidence -- the wily Hall, who has done well for decades in the shaky South Florida theater scene, certainly knows how to promote as well as direct. But to this, add the surprise pro-gay ruling from the right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down state sodomy laws, upholding privacy rights. And Canada's vote to sanction gay marriages. Suddenly, the subject of gay identity, history, and lifestyle is back in the headlines as well as on the Caldwell stage.
The witty script is by Jonathan Tolins, a veteran scribe who penned The Twilight of the Golds, as well as parts of the American version of Queer as Folk, the gay cable-TV series. Tolins' tale takes place in a gay couple's apartment on Christopher Street in New York on Gay Pride Day. Tom is a clever lawyer with a wandering eye. Michael is his soulful partner, a schoolteacher with little money but a stable personality. They are closing on a house in upstate Nyack, planning to flee the N.Y. gay scene for bourgeois contentment among the suburban straights. A minor tiff develops: Michael wants to go to Pottery Barn; Tom wants to stay to watch what will be their last gay pride parade. But before anything comes of this spat, a group of friends arrives, since Tom and Mike's place affords a great view of the gorgeous men parading in the street below. The visit turns into a gab fiesta. Brad is a feature writer with AIDS who vies with Charles, an opera queen in his 50s, for the attentions of Joe, a blond-streaked California boy toy.
The gathering turns sour when Tom calls his ex, James, to join them. James is a dyspeptic writer who announces he's sick of the gay singles scene and is getting married -- to a woman. In the ensuing argument about the pros and cons of gay life, some adulterous secrets are revealed and the witty high jinks turn serious.
So far, this sounds like just about every other gay play that ever was, but that's the point. As the characters themselves point out, gay theater has a certain protocol with a variety of standard elements that seem to crop up continually. Usually the narrative centers on a party of some kind, introduces a series of character types, sets up some conflicts and secrets to reveal, tossing in a requisite shirtless hunk to add some spice and heat. Last Sunday is no exception to this rule, except that all of these conventions are critiqued and discussed in the play itself. It's a witty postmodern take on gay theater that simultaneously plays out and comments on its conventions.
At basis, it's a gay variation on Scream, the innovative horror movie that critiqued its own genre. The problem is that gay theater deals with issues of more importance than most horror movies do. And while Last Sunday raises an array of gay subjects -- the loneliness of the singles scene, the exclusionary hierarchy of gay society, the difficulty of balancing emotional needs with libidinal ones -- none of these is explored. Instead, the story falls back on barbs, jibes, and wholly arbitrary -- sometimes implausible -- arguments and revelations. Those famished for insight or wisdom or even some meat-and-potatoes dramatic construction will come away hungry.
Still, the Caldwell once again delivers superior production, with a cast and set that are decidedly better-looking than the New York version. Hall directs with crisp assurance, and his actors are appealing. Jeff Meacham does well as the restless lively Tom, and he's well-balanced by Nate Clark as Michael. Steve Hayes grabs a lot of laughs as the sardonic Charles. Tim Burke is perfectly annoying (as he is supposed to be) as the spoil sport James, while Jack Garrity gives some complexity and pathos to Brad, the lovelorn writer. Tim Bennett's casually elegant set and Patricia Burdett's equally casual costumes are easy on the eye, though neither gives much indication of their Greenwich Village locale.
If The Last Sunday in June is not all that it could be, it's decidedly an asset on the local scene. For starters, it's a pleasure to see the Caldwell's regular audience, predominantly seniors, mix it up with the younger gay crowd that's packing the theater. Would that society in general had such interplay, but absent that, such mingling is one reason theater continues to be socially important. Secondly, for its faults, this is a play with ideas, and plays with ideas should get more stage time in South Florida. Third, it marks the Caldwell's return to more-adventurous programming, a gamble that appears to be paying off well, if the appreciative crowd that made up the soldout show I saw is any indication. Risk brings rewards. Other producers, take note.