Arts » Theater

Scared Straight

CPT's flippant sex romp tramples on gay dignity.


A sad day for gay people: The cliché-ridden cast of Party.
  • A sad day for gay people: The cliché-ridden cast of Party.
With Party, theater's equivalent of a Big Mac, San Diego-based Elephant Productions has converted Cleveland Public Theatre into the closest thing to a male burlesque house. Along the same lines of Tony n' Tina's Wedding, it appropriates a cherished ritual. But where the fun of Tony n' Tina is being a guest at an absurd wedding, here the gimmick is being a voyeur at what is basically a homosexual minstrel show disguised as a party.

As embarrassing to gay culture as Amos 'n' Andy was to blacks, Party takes '20s clichés about man-hungry women and imposes them on gay men. The audience (99 percent male) is turned into Peeping Toms at a pansy pajama party. Here, masculine bodies of varying degrees of desirability are laid out like a smorgasbord, offering a thrill to those who thrive on the live presentation of the undraped male form.

Chicago playwright David Dillon's nine-year-old script, lamely updated and reset in Cleveland, is a defanged variation of The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's pioneer work of gay self-exploration. That play remains a potent time capsule of the state of gay self-acceptance at the time of Stonewall. Aiming for congratulatory self-affirmation, Dillon has filched Crowley's truth-or-dare party game structure (a device dating back to Kaufman and Hart's 1937 You Can't Take It With You) and replaced its venom with Kool-Aid.

Instead of character development, we have sketched-in bromides, much like the composition of a '40s movie's bomber crew. There's the requisite sissy priest ("The convent turned him down"), a motormouth black satyr, a gushing young neophyte ("Barbra who?"), a butch macho leather man, two interchangeable sweet young things, the de rigueur show-tune queen, and a love-starved host and his forlorn roommate.

The play is structured like a murder mystery, except, instead of anticipating the next dastardly deed, we speechlessly wait for the next penis to be unveiled. As the characters play their endless party game, we are privy to their darkest secrets: how many times a week they indulge in self-abuse, their most rhapsodic experience (meeting Audrey Hepburn on an elevator), their favorite sexual pastimes, etc. The dialogue brings to mind those addlepated loudmouths who invariably sit behind you at a film and waste perfectly good oxygen chattering like magpies through the entire feature.

As in all junk-food theater, Party drags the audience through expected stereotypes. The play's proudly self-proclaimed male sisterhood chants a litany of show-biz references, drops bitchy quips, and tells coming-out stories. The squeamish are advised to flee to the lobby before it all culminates in a particularly bilious nude group cuddle on the sofa to the strains of the Carpenters' "Close to You."

The cartoonish demands of the script make it impossible to judge the cast on purely aesthetic grounds. The actors are an amiable crew, desperately trying to give a threadbare circus the illusion of spontaneous fun. According to the program notes, the show was staged by Charles Lago, who, in this case, would be more of a ringmaster than a director.

From Marlowe's Edward II, fatally impaled up the bum, to Tennessee Williams's offstage suicides, boys who love boys have (dramatically speaking) proven to be the unluckiest people in the world. Arguably, it's some form of progress to see those who practice this kind of love promoted from doom and destruction to a benign fate no more menacing than a slap and a tickle. Yet, it's a Pyrrhic victory to find openly gay writers and producers perpetuating a queer kingdom of vassals enslaved by their members, playing out a humiliating form of self-mockery. This is an evening that equates "gay" with licentious and dumb.

Opening the new Beck Center Studio Theater season is the latest in social-problem plays descended from Ibsen. Here, the dwellers in a suburban enclave turn from "Howdy, neighbor!" friendliness to vigilantes when they discover that the sweet, avuncular, eponymous Mr. Bundy is a convicted child molester. By the time this exercise in guilt and recrimination hobbles to its tortured conclusion, heterosexual family life is made to seem as desirable as a case of hives. It would help matters considerably if director Sue Ott Rowlands didn't telegraph the angst by having the cast pose in painful Ingmar Bergmanesque tableaux. Only Alison Hernan, unrecognizable in trailer-park finery and exuding false piety, saves the evening from playing like a study in postpartum depression. Its bleak view of marriage and suburbia leaves dispirited spectators believing that the only true happiness is to be found as recluses in the Himalayas.

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