You've been here before. The Innocent Versus the Whore is one of the great well-worn setups in art, from Dumas' La Dame aux camelias to the romance of Forrest and Jenny Gump, from Verdi's La Traviata to C. Jay Cox's Latter Days. The conversation briefly took a new turn in 1978, with the release of Larry Kramer's novel Faggots, in which the innocent was the deviant and the whoredom of Fire Island and the bathhouse was coin of the realm. James Edwin Parker's Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night picks up this thread, nine years and a few sextillion viruses later, somewhere in Manhattan.
It is 4:30 a.m., and we are in the bedroom of Daryl (John Santos), a 38-year-old gay man desperate for love. He picked up a trick the night before (Angel Perez), and as the play opens, Daryl is emerging from the bathroom to find his trick, Peter, half asleep, massaging his crotch beneath a sheet. Daryl rouses him. They should get to know each other, he says. The ensuing conversation is the play.
And it seems simple at first. Daryl wants love, and he should have it. He's a bit of an idiot for seeking it in the midst of a one-night stand, but still — optimism has its charms. Peter, on the other hand, really does seem exclusively interested in sex. Pig, I thought, happily gliding into my comfy assumptions about similarly behaved men in the bars of Wilton Manors.
There is more to it, naturally, which is why Two Boys isn't a failure. But that doesn't mean it's good. The last great play Sol put on was last fall's Unidentified Human Remains, which got its mojo by tapping into the theater's natural propensity for pulpy perversion. Since then, Sol's done a sex-crazed Alice in Wonderland (called Alice Does Wonderland), a play about a cross-dressing nun, a panicked play-within-a-dream-within-a-play, and a tale of unlikely domestic double-cross, all of which got by on novelty and balls. In contrast, Two Boys is honest, sweet, and sad — things I didn't think Artistic Director Robert Hooker was interested in and that I am increasingly sure he should avoid.
Not that there's no novelty here. Over the play's 90-ish minutes, whatever expectations you began with are upended. Seemingly sex-crazed Peter is less an animal than one might suspect, possessing a code of personal ethics and an understanding of human nature deeper than he is at first willing to reveal (understanding these one-night stands to be the intellectually vacuous affairs they inevitably tend to be). And Daryl's wish for human contact is, by the end of the play, far less touching than it seemed at first.
Revealing more of the plot would be a great disservice to Sol Theatre — Two Boys doesn't have much of a plot to begin with, and the revelations that appear in Daryl and Peter's conversation are best left as revelations. But we can, and should, judge the piece by its own standards.
Daryl, who's failed to find a steady boyfriend in more than a decade, has created a rough collection of rituals he enacts to attract true love and keep his fear of loneliness at bay. One of these rituals involves the lighting of five candles on nights when he's lured a fresh partner to his bed. Each of those candles represents a level on which he hopes to be attracted to his potential suitor. If the suitor measures up on three of the five levels, he stands a chance of becoming Daryl's boyfriend. Peter is understandably disturbed upon learning of this custom. The audience is amused.
Those five levels are physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. And while such easy classifications are indubitably a shoddy method of dealing with anything so complex as romance, they're as good a measure of dramatic quality as any. So, how does Two Boys measure up to its own Candle Test?
Candle 1: The Physical: Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night should be titled Two Bears, and for that reason, it nearly derails. Much of the play's dialogue is predicated on the notion that we are looking at two supremely sexy men — the endless cooings of "sexy baby" and "pretty boy" and Peter's explanation that he used to be a go-go dancer and Daryl's observation that "you've still got the body for it." Bullshit. These are out-of-shape, middle-aged men.
Candle 2: The Sexual: You see a lot of penis in Two Boys, but like any sighting of genitals in the uncertain afterglow of an ill-advised one-night stand, it doesn't do anything for you. And it's not because these are bears; it's because a situation as awkward as this couldn't induce wood in a tree.
Candle 3: The Intellectual: Neither Daryl nor Peter is especially smart, but their parts are intelligently written, acted, and directed. When Daryl gets into his malaise-of-the-world rants — like the one in which he observes that "people are afraid to act like human beings" or in which he describes Manhattan's gay denizens as "desperate, lonely men winding up as so much emotional roadkill" — you think his patter is pat. But when Peter counters with the rather remarkable observation that he is not cataloging the world's ills so much as his own, ears prick up. Two Boys is getting to the nitty-gritty, and we should pay attention.
Candle 4: The Emotional: Santos was in last year's Burning Blue, which ranks among the worst productions I've ever seen, in large part due to his unduly hyperactive performance. His nervous weight-shifting, womanly hand-wringing, and ear-rending whine are unsuited to drama, and whenever Two Boys turns serious, Santos turns awful. Happily, most of Two Boys is meant to be funny, which is something Santos can be with little difficulty. He inspires mirth but nothing else. Perez is stilted and wooden, but so is his character — out for sex, uninterested in baring any part of himself that isn't an erogenous zone. Since he's supposed to be a cipher anyway, let's give him top marks and hope his next role is as the lead in a stage adaptation of The Terminator.
Candle 5: The Spiritual: One likes to think that whatever spiritual uplift one derives from theatrical performance has to do with a perfect meshing of other elements, with the proper orchestrations of words, movements, and ideas. But I don't think the value here has much to do with the particulars of director Jerry Jensen's production or the skills of his actors. Instead, it's the cozy vibe of Robert Hooker's theater, where you sit on couches and suck down wine, and the intelligence of James Edwin Parker's script that justify the ticket price. Ruminations on the sanctity of sex, the perversity of innocence, and the alienating nature of the modern world come cheap, but this one might teach you something. It won't move you, but neither will whatever else you do with your Friday night.
If you're left with a slightly enhanced understanding of desperation, consider yourself lucky and your night well-spent. Two candles are better than none, and just because Daryl is content to go through life with inflated expectations, we should not feel obligated to do likewise.