At first blush, there appears to be something seriously wrong with Sol Theatre's new production of The MO of MI (The Modus Operandi of Male Intimacy). Sol's digs are tiny, but MOMI's characters are large; Sol's venue is intimate, but MOMI's story arc is so absurdly broad-stroke (and full of broad-stroke absurdity) that its effect, at first, is distancing. There is a sense that things aren't hanging together correctly, that something vital is being overlooked. It might be the hardboiled acting that seems lifted from some gay, suburban version of The Big Sleep, or it might be all of the leaden, walking-dead lines exchanged by the play's two live-in lovers — lines with which playwright Aaron Brown meant to convey domestic tranquility but that instead communicate a pathological bitterness over the triviality of domesticity in all its forms.
But hold on.
MOMI's first scene opens on a gay couple celebrating their eight-month anniversary. They've just finished a nice chicken dinner, and now they're folding some laundry. We quickly learn, through some deft exposition, that Michael (David Tarryn-Grae) is a bit of a sugar daddy in this relationship — his twinky lover, Tom (Jeison Tomi), is 15 years younger and basically an indigent. While tending to the clothes, Michael does a bit of unconscious patronizing of his young beau, dubious of the boy's ability to so much as fold underwear or successfully take a car in for a tune-up. Traces of resentment crop up. The audience wonders how all this will play after another eight months.
The next night, the couple takes in an agitprop "performance art" piece by a hunky little druggy named Jonathan (Ryan Sirois). Michael is deeply moved, but Tom is skeptical. Rightly so. Anybody who's ever attended a half-decent poetry slam would have a hard time paying attention to the schlock Jonathan is peddling. His pedestrian observations about tragedy, power, and artifice and the showy faux-conviction with which he declaims them ("I pass the homeless woman clutching the child to her empty stomach on the street where I don't want to deal with the way life has treated her..." and so on) are composed entirely of borrowed ideas, aped gestures, and Def Jam poses. The man is a cliché. Michael's willingness to be moved by such a thing makes one wonder if he too is a cliché.
Or he might just be lonely, despite his supposedly idyllic eight-month romance. Jonathan really is hunky, and it's understandable if Jonathan's apparent ideological fire and cute goatee have inspired a desperate little crush in the older man. Later, at a club, Michael gives the boy his phone number.
When Michael and Tom return home, Tom is horrified that Michael has done such a thing, doubly so when Jonathan, lacking a place to crash for the night, winds up on the couple's couch. When Jonathan's stay is indefinitely extended, the consequences are disastrous. Michael and Tom's happy union disintegrates before our eyes.
To reveal more would ruin some surprises, but one can say this: The entire setup is a red herring. By intermission, the audience has a much clearer and more interesting picture of what's happening onstage. There are double-crossings, triple-crossings, evil plots, and generalized nastiness pervading every seemingly innocent moment of the play, making it less a meditation on gay romance than an exploration of the vile, venal selfishness that occasionally takes possession of apparently normal human beings. And that's cool. Vile venality is fun.
But it also means that playwright Aaron Brown is a bit of a twit. He was present at the show's opening night, and in the Q&A session afterward, he framed MOMI as an examination of the "older gay male experience" and dispensed some writerly wisdom about plot structure. He described his plays in terms of "product," designed to please a particular demographic base, and yet he also ascribed to his work a very literary sort of depth.
It appears that Brown is ignoring his own better angels. If MOMI is, as Brown claimed, an examination of "the older gay male experience" or even a look at "the modus operandi of male intimacy," then it is the product of a sick and jaded mind. The play ends with utter dishonesty, brainless violence, and a total ignorance of morality. To think that this speaks to the realities of any population in the United States, least of all one as ubiquitous and powerful as "older gay men," is not to mourn for that population but to forecast the death of the country. It's not what Brown intended, but that's OK. A lot of artists are too dumb to explain the worth of their own work.
And this work has got a lot of worth, if you can ignore the senseless ramblings of the bitter old queen who wrote it. The acting is, if I may delve into almost Aaron Brownian portentousness, a masterpiece of pomo camp. Sirois' Jonathan always seems to be acting, whether he's doing his performance-art shtick or trying to put the make on Michael. At first, this looks like incompetence on the part of the actor. Later, it looks like insecurity on the part of the character. We all know people like this, whose every move, down to their attempts at seduction, appear hopelessly affected.
Tomi seems to be reprising his bratty 17-year-old from last fall's Unidentified Human Remains during much of MOMI. The rest of the time, he's a heartless coquette. Only at the end, during a showdown with the scorned and wrathful Michael, do both façades crack, revealing the frightened and directionless boy beneath.
But Michael's the one to watch. Tarryn-Grae's performance is a marvel, especially when you consider that he stepped into the role only after another actor dropped out six days before opening night. Michael is all smooth surfaces and bland niceness, possessing the diffuse intelligence and toothless passions of the terminally comfy. His character is the reasonable one, the nice one, the put-upon one you feel for and trust. In its final moments, MOMI reveals the steam-filled, white-hot impulses those bland façades exist to deny, and it's a chilling, thrilling moment: the big, nihilistic payoff that is, in the end, the justification for all pulp entertainment.
Which is what this is, no matter what Brown has to say about it. Remove the blunt characterizations and the surreal malevolence of Sol's production and Brown's script is a corn-dog soap opera — or worse, a telenovela. Given this treatment, however, it's something else entirely: John D. MacDonald in the queer 'burbs. It doesn't say much about gay men, maybe, but it has a lot to say about madmen and what they look like when they're wronged and desperate.