No playwright plumbs issues of modern gayness as often as Terrence McNally, and he's seldom plumbed more deeply than he means to with Some Men. And frankly, few theaters in South Florida are less equipped to interpret his effort than Rising Action Theatre. Rising Action is a new, poor company that draws its actors from a pool of community theater vets, and it's most comfortable with intimate, simple shows with a few carefully chosen players slathered with lots of directorial attention. Some Men is the opposite of that: a nonlinear exploration of love and commitment spanning more than 80 years of American gay life in which every member of a big ensemble must create five, six, seven, or eight distinct characters over the course of 13 fast-moving scenes. It is a beast of a show, and casting it would be tricky for Caldwell Theatre or Florida Stage. At little Rising Action, even the attempt seems masochistic.
Even though "effort" generally doesn't count for much in the theater biz, you've got to admire how not excruciatingly bad this Some Men really is. That sounds like faint praise, but I'm serious. At no point in Some Men are you likely to lose yourself and forget that you're watching actors acting — but also, it's the rare scene that doesn't contain some pathos or a genuine giggle.
The play begins with a gay wedding at the Waldorf Astoria in 2008. You can't see the ceremony, which is taking place somewhere behind you. The audience is facing the wedding guests, a transgenerational assembly of (you figure) gay men. You don't know who they are or where they've come from, and you may not even care. Some of them flirt; some of them are bored. Four of them appear to be couples, one of which is caught in mid-squabble. There's nothing especially interesting about the assembly, save actor David Leddick's sudden, droll announcement: "I'm fabulous... I'd like to stay that way." Leddick is an old queen, thin, regal, and he says this with the same casual fuck-it-all tone that a royal might use to order the beheading of a naughty stable boy. The statement draws the night's first serious laugh (there are more, and Leddick is responsible for most of them).
Some Men. Written by Terrence McNally. Directed by David Goldyn. With David Leddick, Larry Williams, Larry Brooks, Ted Dvoracek, Daniel Lugo, Joseph Long, Ricardo Rodriguez, and John Hernandez. Through November 2 at Rising Action Theatre, 840 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Wilton Manors. Visit www.risingactiontheatre.com, or call 954-561-2225.
It comes in response to a chat among the wedding guests about the value of gay love and marriage. As one guest points out (and this is the quote being used to promote the show): "Some people think this marriage thing is going to be the end of gay life as it has been practiced on this planet for a hundred million years." These guests don't all necessarily agree — some of them are plainly smitten with their current partners — but no big deal. These are just "some men."
One of McNally's gifts lies in the humanizing of history, the pairing of real faces and real-seeming lives with history's seemingly impersonal currents, and by the time the play returns to the wedding at the Waldorf in its final scene, these are no longer just any men. Their feelings have gained heft and traction, and you can see the forces that shaped them. The forces are generational, political, sociological, but McNally never regards them as academic considerations (at one point, he has great fun mocking two "Gender Studies" majors for doing precisely that).
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A scene set in the Hamptons in 1922 shows us two men of wildly different social stations who are deeply in love but who lack any language to express it. They can barely talk to each other, and it's heartbreaking (also heartbreaking is the inept Irish accent employed by one of that scene's actors, which wobbles from milkmaid broguery to meat-market Italian and then on to some kind of Russian before finding a queasy synthesis of all three). Through the play, you can watch that tongue-tiedness transform itself over decades: into the self-abnegation of a gay man who thinks it wrong and dangerous to come out of the closet; into a couple's failure to understand why on Earth the Stonewall riot is taking place outside of their cozy piano bar in 1969; into the steely, mute sexuality of the bathhouse.
And this is just one of many thin strains that arc through McNally's script like capillaries. There are many more, and the ones that connect do so thanks to a series of heroic performances from Leddick and some solid ones from four actors I've never seen before: Larry Williams, Larry Brooks, Ted Dvoracek, and Joseph Long. But this accounts for a little more than half the cast. The three remaining actors are almost intolerably bad from the very beginning (though one of them manages a nice turn as a closeted gay man in 1971, hitting on a busboy with a reptilian nasality that calls to mind Roy Cohn) — and, as this very long play wends to a close and they begin receiving more stage time, there is nothing "almost" about it.
Dissecting their problems would be pointless. Most of the people who would consider going to Rising Action have at least a vague notion of what they're getting into in terms of production values. They come, I suspect, in the knowledge that ignoring a few foibles will allow them to enjoy a handful of genuinely gorgeous moments, and Some Men has one that rivals anything you'll see anywhere. It is set in the aforementioned piano bar near the Stonewall Inn during the riots, and as queens talk about show tunes and Judy Garland (who died that morning), they are interrupted by the sudden arrival of a tottering, attitudinal drag queen, dressed in layers of explosively glittery red, played by Leddick. Her name is Roxie, given name Archie, and she's an old broad who's seen a lot. She barely blinks when the muscular bartender refuses to serve her ("We don't serve unescorted... ladies"), and she only has to stare him down for a few seconds before he becomes totally unmanned. One of the regulars takes a shine to her, but it doesn't soften her mood: She has broken a heel, probably from the riots, and she is thoroughly pissed. She says fuck every three or four words and keeps slamming her hand on the bar for no reason.
Roxie/Archie sticks around for only a minute, but before she goes, she takes a stab at singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a gruff, barely on-key baritone. As she sings, you can feel the longing she's sublimated beneath her vast and diffuse anger, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it's like hearing the song for the first time. The bar's regulars feel the same way — when she leaves the bar a moment later, they barely know what to do with themselves. They have seen something for which their experience has not prepared them, and even now, almost 40 years later, we still don't know quite what to do with her.