REVIEW: The Gay American (The Ruckus)

Sexual fear and loathing in American politics

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The Ruckus presents
 
The Gay American
  
by Kristian O’Hare
directed by
Allison Shoemaker
at
the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through May 26  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Washington D.C. is the perfect place for a gay sex scandal. The nexus of American political power, the district is already so rife with desperation, loneliness, self-loathing, overweening hypocrisy and insidious self-compromise that the closeted  queers fit right in. Hand in glove. It’s both here, and in the benighted environs of New Jersey, that Kristian O’Hare’s dark, freewheeling satire The Gay American takes its stand. Director Allison Shoemaker has pulled together a sharp and seductive cast, luring us with laser-like sarcasm and poignant reflection into TheGayAmerican_Production11the small studio space at the side project theatre space in Rogers Park, where The Ruckus has set up shop for this world premiere.

Their production will sell out every night, if there is any justice in this world. The Gay American is top-drawer, savage American comedy. Its script is an outrageous, non-stop interrogation of the value of gay identity politics at its intersection with its closeted presence on the national political scene. Coming out, while a cornerstone in the valorous struggle for sexual identity equality, yellows sickly with corruption, duplicity, and solipsism in the hands of a politico as sleazy and self-promoting as Jim McGreevey (Neal Starbird).

Scene: our nation’s capitol. Gay pages suck up to powerful Washington players in the pursuit of a political career wherein they get to be the top. A closeted power player and vociferous foe of sexual predators, Mark Foley (Walter Brody) keeps a stable of young pages that he can text suggestive comments to back and forth during their term in the page program. After page graduation, once the boys are legal enough, he meets up with them for sex at the hotel room that is “the second most favorite address in D.C.” New Jersey Governor McGreevey, an up-and-coming presidential hopeful, siphons off a Page (Aaron Dean) to serve as his personal aide, whether for his own personal service, or to service him and his wife Dina (Julie Cowden) during one of their “Friday Night Specials”–starting with drinks and jalapeno poppers at no less a place than TGIF Fridays.

All the above is true and established fact. In some respects, O’Hare’s wild and absurd script has written itself and there is no way that he can top the inanity that passes for political reality in America. But the real charm lies in his capacity to craft 3-dimensional comic characters; allowing them softer, sadder, even more poetic moments, while never letting up on the cynical, mercurial rationales by which they sell themselves and each other out. The rest of the charm relies on the crisp and exacting pace with which this show is executed. If there’s an award for lightening fast scene changes in a mercilessly cramped space, this cast and crew have earned it.

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Beyond scene changes, what a joy to witness a complex and sophisticated script fleshed out by such a brilliantly comic cast. Starbird’s Jim McGreevey looks like he has sprung, fully formed, from the New Jersey muck. His office—his real office—is a bathroom stall, for which he explains his preference on two separate occasions: “I love the bathroom stall. It reminds me of my Catholic upbringing,” and “Remember Clark Kent and Superman? That’s the way I feel about bathroom stalls. I enter it Irish Catholic, middle class, married, a normal guy . . . and after a nameless fuck, I leave it feeling like Superman.” For his part, Walter Brody looks so much like Mark Foley he had me doing double takes all evening long. He also captures the fluid ease with which a true Washington player makes the switch from rank exploiter to pillar of morality in 2.8 seconds.

Joshua Davis renders a deliciously tender and corruptible Golan Cipal. He’s the lover that McGreevey continually mistakes for Mexican and, in a 9/11 environment, promotes to homeland security advisor at a six-figure salary–even though Cipal is still an Israeli citizen. O’Hare is ready to play the romance card regarding Cipal’s involvement with McGreevey and Davis digs deep into the role’s contradictions,  evolving Golan’s progress from warm, poetic naïveté to gullible and overwhelmed self-compromise for one’s lover to immersion in self-loathing rage from a lover scorned.

TheGayAmerican_Production14But his rage cannot match the post-partum blackness in the soul of Dina McGreevey (Julie Cowden). I might have wished that O’Hare could have played up the sleaze factor a little more for this character. Certainly the real Dina Matos McGreevey deserves it. O’Hare relies just a little too much on “poor, betrayed woman” tropes for his Dina. Only once does he have her acknowledge her own complicity in her lavender marriage. Plus, a little research reveals that those “Friday Night Specials” were going on well before marriage. Nevertheless, Cowden’s performance is immaculate in its searing emotional truth. Her boozy, pill-popping chats with Jersey gal pal Patty (Elise Mayfield) become especially memorable, particularly when Patty morphs into Constance Wilde. Now that’s a side to Constance that Oscar may never have seen.

Aaron Dean and Freddie Donovan play a perfect pair of congressional pages—perfect bookends portraying the young gay have and have-nots in Washington’s political game playing. Stevie Chaddock gives us a sympathetic and vulnerable Morag–ignored by her parents as they enjoy the “cup quality” of their coffee, lost in the brave new world of cyber-dating, hoping to gain something from exploiting herself before others exploit her. I might have wished for more empowerment for Morag, Page, and Philly Buster but that will never come to pass in this world. No, in this dark, gay tale of Washington sexual shenanigans everyone loses, especially when they think they are winning.

    
     
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

 

 

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REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire (Writer’s Theatre)

A wrenching ‘Streetcar’ of desire

 

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Writers’ Theatre presents
  
A Streetcar Named Desire
  
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map)
through July 11  tickets: $65  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

David Cromer has quite a gift. Apparently, he can rescue any brilliant yet overdone play from the annals of community theatre and breathe a vibrant energy into those dusty scripts. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe considering his ingenious productions of Our Town and Picnic. We can now add to the pile of evidence his A Streetcar Named Desire over at Writers’ Theatre.

streetcar03 This production is a revival in the true sense of the word. Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but all the while he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story. As a result, his Streetcar is as searing as July in the French Quarter.

The play, Williams’ finest, is epic in scale. It explores domestic abuse, deceit, homosexuality in post-WWII America, love, and a ton of sex, along with Chekhovian-style class conflicts. Cromer gathers all of this and crams it onto the tiny stage at Writer’s. Collette Pollard’s brilliantly intimate design places the audience a few feet away from the action. You cannot help but feel voyeuristic as you watch Stella, Stanley, and Blanche claw and clutch at each other.

What makes the production crash along, however, are the individualistic, desperate performances. From his first step on-stage, Matt Hawkins makes some bizarre choices as Stanley. He’s sleazy, cocky, yet lovable. Even though he explodes often, he’s not incessantly threatening. He has to frequently remind himself that he is king of his castle, making him a man and not a monster. Hawkins makes no attempt at a Brando impression, but Writer’s production doesn’t need nor want that. It also helps that he shares the stage with two powerful females—Natasha Lowe’s reserved Blanche and Stacy Stoltz’s compelling Stella. Lowe doesn’t steep Blanche in sexuality, but pushes her cold shrewdness instead. She slashes away at those around her as she is ripped apart herself. Lowe’s Blanche is neither saint nor villain. Stoltz, Hawkins’ real-life wife, turns in some great work in a part that can be overlooked if a director isn’t careful. I’m used to her performing in stylized pieces with The Hypocrites and House Theatre, so it was refreshing to see her in some classic American realism. Her Stella is a fighter, refusing to be steamrolled by Stanley’s machismo. The relationship between the two is fascinating to watch unfold—you can sense real love between them, not just animal desire (although there is a lot of that, inches away from our seats). This forces us to ask if love is enough for a marriage, because their love is definitely not healthy. Although Stanley is convinced all their problems stem from Blanche, to us there seems to be a fundamental disconnect.

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Throughout the piece, Cromer sprinkles in original tweaks that make the production shine and resonate. The ghosts that sweep through Blanche’s mind are put on stage, for example. Williams’ script is also hyper-sexualized here. The production would never pass censors in the 1950s, but today it rips open the major theme of the play: desire. Cromer seems to have a desire for flame on-stage, because he utilizes it so well. The scene between Blanche and Mitch (the laudable Danny McCarthy), where Blanche lays out some secrets, is stunning because most of it is lit by candlelight alone. Cromer is brave and bold—many of his choices bring the audience into his characters’ heads, especially the unstable Blanche.

My one critique of the show is that there are some sightline issues, deriving from both the cramped set and some of the staging. At times it seemed like turning the actors a few degrees would have solved it, which is why it became a bit pesky. However, it was not nearly enough to derail my involvement with this piece. Cromer corrals us into this world, and the powerful ensemble drags us along whether we like heading towards the impending cliff or not. When the house lights finally turn on, it feels like a tiny chunk of your soul has been ripped away.

   
  
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

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FEATURING: Loren Lazerine, Natasha Lowe, Danny McCarthy, Rosario Vargas, Matt Hawkins, Jenn Engstrom, Esteban Andres Cruz, Stacy Stoltz, Carolyn E. Nelson, Derek Hasenstab and Ryan Hallahan

PRODUCTION TEAM
Scenic Design by Collette Pollard
Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert
Costume Design by Janice Pytel
Sound Design by Josh Schmidt
Properties Design by Meredith Miller