Because we live in a beautiful and tolerant world, nobody will come out and tell you that gay theaters suck. But they do. They suck a lot. Almost without exception, they are standard-less places peddling cheap, feel-good emotions, dedicated to a bland and facile kind of politically correct sloganeering which they try to pass off as "insightful commentary" (as one director memorably put it, his theater was "all about, um, letting the audience know about, um, things in society").
The exception, of course, is Sol Theatre Project. For a thoroughly thrilling and profound night at the theater, you'd be well advised to catch Claire Chafee's experimental lesbian romp, Why We Have a Body, at Sol on Saturday nights — it's been running for almost two months, and if I were in charge of the world, it would keep running forever. And since Sol's such an ambitious little company, on Thursdays and Fridays they're now doing Matthew Todd's Blowing Whistles, a play that ought to be required viewing for any gay man who's ever tripped over his dick while trying to follow his principles.
Todd's a Londoner, and I get the sense that he's been unlucky in love — Blowing Whistles' scathing deconstruction of gay relationships is aimed squarely at the men in his hometown. The script is full of references to swinging London gay clubs and gayberhoods and London websites where lonely men can cruise. Sol's founder and director, Robert Hooker, has localized the piece: it is now set in Wilton Manors, and the clubs it references are Steel and "the old" (!) China White. The website on which his characters cruise is Manhunt.com.
Why We Have a Body
Blowing Whistles Matthew Todd. Directed by Robert Hooker. With Ross Carson, David Tarryn-Grae and Kyle GarciaThrough mid-September at Sol Theatre, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale 33304. Call 954-801-9207 or visit www.soltheatre.com.
The play opens on the eve of the ten-year anniversary of lovers Nigel and Jamie's first date, as the couple returns home from a night out with friends. Jamie is a bit of a nebbish: he fusses around with the magazines on the coffee table, gets flustered at the way Nigel throws shade at the friends they've just seen, and can't seem to say no when Nigel meets a trick online and invites him over — apparently a frequent occurrence. The trick, Mark, is an insecure, closeted 17-year-old, unsure about his sexual identity and everything else. (He is also, by the way, monstrously slutty.)
The ensuing encounter is executed perfectly. Nigel's Peter Pan syndrome (he's 40 and still has coke-crazed sex in the bathroom stalls of nightclubs), Mark's pathetic teenaged bravado, and the way Jamie's Beta-male reticence clashes quietly with his entirely correct suspicion that Mark needs a good friend more than a good fuck — you see and understand all of this and more within minutes, though Todd and the Solsters refuse to be over-obvious about it. Writers have a term to describe prose that addresses a subject clearly and elegantly without drawing attention to itself: transparency. From its first moment, Blowing Whistles is transparent.
The remainder of the play spans the next 24 hours, as Jamie and Nigel try and fail to enjoy their anniversary (at the Stonewall Street Fest, where they met in the first place), lie to each other (Nigel about his infidelity, and Jamie about his "liberated" lack of concern for such things), and use or refuse to use young Mark for their own ends. Here, God is in the details. A little scene in which Jamie tries to instruct Mark about gay history seems to float right by, until you realize that Jamie's slow, thoughtful explication of the original Stonewall riots and the gay rights struggle they precipitated actually constitutes a painful reassessment, on Jamie's part, of everything gays have struggled for. Larry Kramer was never this subtle, nor was he ever more vitriolic. Couples going to see Blowing Whistles might have a hard time looking at each other on the ride home.
Nigel is played by Ross Carson, an occasional actor who understands the value of understatement better than most pros. Young Mark is played by 18-year-old Kyle Garcia, who, though talented, could learn from Carson's example. (It's not easy internalizing the fractured personality of a fictional queer teen when you're busy being one yourself, and Garcia has a slight tendency to overact.)
Carson and Garcia are good, but the one to watch is David Tarryn-Grae. Like all of the Solsters, Tarryn-Grae is an actor with a day job, and usually you can tell. Not in this show. Maybe it's that Blowing Whistles hews as close to the bone for him as it will for Fort Lauderdale's infamously slutty gay populace, or maybe he's just getting better at what he does. Whatever the reason, the weariness and uncertainty that creeps into his character's face through the show as he prepares to tolerate yet another intolerable, soul-killing compromise is almost frighteningly perfect. At the very least, it is identical to the weariness and uncertainty I remember feeling on my own face, on bad nights in bad relationships past. It is not a calming visitation.
Being a gay man myself, I cannot tell for sure if this or anything else about Blowing Whistles will communicate itself to non-gays. Do straight people make these same wretched compromises? Could an ordinary straight couple imagine having a ménage a trois on their 10th anniversary? Or any anniversary? Or ever? (This might be the biggest difference between gays and straights: to most gay couples, the thought of never having a ménage a trois would seem almost laughably rigid.) Maybe that's irrelevant, and the ménage and its aftermath are just stand-ins for bad faith in all its forms.
I find that I don't care. Whatever they might mean to straight people, Blowing Whistles and plays like it (like Why We Have a Body, Two Boys In a Bed, and Unidentified Human Remains) are precisely what make Sol Theatre an indispensable treasure to SoFla's gay population. Those other gay companies — you know who I'm talking about — are flatterers, content to send us home thinking we're wonderful, and that all is well. But all isn't ever well, least of all with gays. What makes Robert Hooker the very best of our local queer artistes is that he, and only he, is willing to be the gadfly in the ointment.
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