Wed. June 22, 2011 12:00 AM
by John Olson
With social and political conditions changing so rapidly for gays in America over the past forty-five years, every so often we get a new play concerning a cross-section of American gay men and reflecting the circumstances of their era. The best known of these plays are Mart Crowley's 1968 The Boys in the Band set during a birthday party for closeted and marginalized gays during the repressive pre-Stonewall ‘60s; and 1994's Love! Valor! Compassion! by Terrence McNally, in which the AIDS epidemic figures heavily. With The Homosexuals, now in its world premiere production by About Face Theatre, Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins updates the genre for the first decade of the 21st Century, when the daily challenges of gay life have become less life-and-death and more like everyone else's. For Dawkins' characters, cancer is a greater concern than AIDS while unrequited love and bad breakups are just as troublesome as coming out to family and in the workplace. He shows that while there are still some unique aspects to being gay, the community has come some distance from the shadow world of Crowley's play.
The tribe of seven depicted in Dawkins' play is seen in relation to one of them: Evan (Patrick Andrews), a young Iowan who meets them all on his first day in the big city. Unlike The Boys in the Band and Love! Valor! Compassion!, The Homosexuals spends little stage time on group dynamics. Its first five scenes are two-person dialogues between Evan and one of the other six characters. This structure is reminiscent of Sondheim and Furth's Company, and like their other musical, Merrily We Roll Along, the story is told in reverse chronological order. It opens in 2010 as Evan is about to break up with Peter, an older and flamboyantly theatrical stage director played both hilariously and sensitively by Scott Bradley. It's not clear what might have drawn the regular-guy/straight-appearing Evan to Peter. Peter suggests it's just that he was the only member of the group Evan hadn't yet dated (not true, as later scenes will show us). Another explanation may be that Evan envies Peter's comfort with being openly, unabashedly gay, but we won't know about Evan's struggles with his own gay identity until later in the play. Neither is it shown exactly what might have drawn Peter to Evan, other than Evan's youth and looks. (OK, question answered). But even if the situation is hard to believe, the characters aren't. Andrews establishes Evan as a genuine and sensitive young man while Bradley's Peter transcends the stereotype of the obligatory show queen as represented in the aforementioned gay plays.
The two other scenes in the first act deal with the issue of sexual tension within gay friendships. We witness the first attempts at a sexual liaison between "British" Mark (Benjamin Sprunger), and Evan, newly single in 2008 after a multi-year relationship with Collin (who we won't see until the final scene). Sprunger nails the manner of the sexy yet buttoned-down British professional as well as his accent, in a comfortably natural and understated performance of a guy young enough to have a strong libido (unleashed in this scene after years of unfulfilled attraction to Evan) but mature enough to know the score. It's a funny, sexy and wise little scene. It's followed by a similarly low-keyed and honest 2006 exchange between Evan and Michael (Stephen Cone). The cute but mildly pudgy Michael, who seems to be about Evan's age, works in a candy store and seems to have harbored a crush for Evan, who views Michael as just a buddy. When Michael visits Evan in the hospital after Evan's appendectomy and gets his first glimpse of Evan's privates, it sparks Michael's realization that he's never seen any of his buddies naked and that none of them seem to view him in sexual terms. Cone makes Michael a sweet little schlub – utterly believable and totally recognizable from life rather than from any earlier play.
Act Two opens in 2004 with the introduction of gal pal Tam, a friend to the group and wife to British Mark (for green card purposes). Tam's too tough and knowing to be called a "Fag Hag" and if she brings to mind Mary-Louise Parker's character in the film Longtime Companion, Tam is much funnier. Elizabeth Ledo plays Tam as detached enough from the boys to call them on their mistakes and with solid timing delivers some of the best lines. (Dawkins has a way of tacking on little unexpected ironic jokes to lines and it's a credit to him, the cast and director Bonnie Metzgar that they keep surprising). It's in this scene, though, that Dawkins starts to fall into well-trod territory of "coming out" issues, as Tam lectures Evan for not being more visibly gay at his workplace.
Dawkins gets more deeply into political issues in the following scene, set two years earlier, when Evan quarrels with another friend named Mark (Eddie Diaz) about the need for social/political activism to pursue equality and acceptance. Fair enough – it's an important issue and as relevant today as it was in 2002, but Dawkins shifts his tone noticeably while doing so. The dialogue becomes strident and sounds more like it was written by Larry Kramer. Dawkins might have chosen to dig more deeply into the sexual tension between Mark (at this in a relationship with Peter) and Evan (partnered with the still-unseen Collin) – as they consider the possibilities of a four-way or three-way liaison between the two couples. In fact, Mark even proposes a preliminary two-way for he and Evan while the two of them, clad only in towels, wait in Mark's apartment for their clothes to dry after being soaked in a thunderstorm. It might have been fun to more deeply explore the possibilities of this situation – an edgier and less discussed topic than gay political activism.
We finally meet Collin (John Francisco) in the sixth and final scene, hosting a viewing party for the 2000 Tony Awards but reeling from a breakup with a boyfriend earlier in the day. The unit set by Regina Garcia is made up to look like a newly constructed condo. Oddly, given Collin's importance to the rest of the action, about all we learn of him is that he's an apparently well-off professional whose chub-chasing boyfriend has just dumped him for losing 150 pounds. Francisco gives Collin an easygoing charm and a moody mixture of shock and regret. As British Mark and Collin great the arriving guests (the other characters we've met earlier in the play), they learn the news and attempt to console Collin (in between exasperated comments about the Tonys awarded to the musical Contact). Michael introduces Evan, just off the bus from Iowa and with no place to stay in the unnamed big city, to the group and it appears Evan has found his tribe as well as his future ex-boyfriend.
There are a lot of ways one could go with an ambitious play like this and Dawkins has the basis to make a very good play even stronger. Right now, it's a very entertaining and resonant piece that explores some of the uniquenesses of gay life as well its commonalities with everyone else's. Sex is a big part of it, to be sure, and maybe more present or at least more discussed than in straight social circles, but love and friendship trump all that. Director Metzgar achieves a sure, consistent tone (with the one exception already noted) that brings out the genuine humor in Dawkins script and organic performances by her cast. Opening just after the Tony Awards (which are referenced repeatedly in the script) and gay pride weekend, it's a great summer play for gay men and their friends.
The Homosexuals will play at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, through July 24, 2011. For ticket information, visit the Victory Gardens box office, www.aboutfacetheatre.com or call 773-871-3000.
PHOTO: (left to right) Benjamin Sprunger and Patrick Andrews Photo by Jonathan L. Green.