Monday, 22 February 2010
New Gay Theater Has More Love Than Politics
A new breed of plays and musicals this season is presenting gay characters in love stories, replacing the direct political messages of 1980s and ‘90s shows like “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America” with more personal appeals for social progress.
These productions about gay life make little or no mention of H.I.V. or AIDS and keep direct activism at arm’s length, with militant crusading portrayed with ambivalence more than ardor. The politics of these shows — there are seven of them opening in New York in the next several weeks — are subtler, more nuanced: they place the everyday concerns of Americans in a gay context, thereby pressing the case that gay love and gay marriage, gay parenthood and gay adoption are no different from their straight variations.
While persecution remains a reality for most of these gay characters, just as it does in many movies and television shows featuring gay love stories, the widening acceptance of AIDS as a pandemic rather than a gay disease — and the broadening debate on gay marriage and gay soldiers — have led, and have to some extent freed, writers and producers to use a wider lens to explore a broader landscape.
Joe Zellnik, who with his brother, David, created the new Off Broadway musical “Yank!,” about a bittersweet love affair between two men serving in the Army in World War II, said that they deliberately avoided agitprop and were instead trying to advance a message about equality through a gentler portrayal of men “who happened to be gay, fighting in the good war.”
“We weren’t trying to write an overtly political musical about gays in the military, because we came to see that ‘Yank!’ becomes more subversive the more you hew to the old classic Rodgers and Hammerstein models of love stories — just between two men — than having our characters up on soapboxes,” Joe Zellnik said.
In the new Broadway play “Next Fall,” in which sharp religious differences test a gay couple’s romantic bond, it is ultimately a traffic accident — not AIDS — that lands one of the men in critical condition.
“I think we have a better chance of attracting straight and gay audience members with universal emotions, like love and loyalty, that touch the lives of these gay men and show how we are all equal, rather than do it through polarizing arguments,” said Richard Willis, one of the lead producers of “Next Fall,” which began previews on Tuesday.
Television shows like “Will & Grace” and movies like “Milk,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “In and Out” have shown gay love and friendships as natural parts of life since the mid-1990s, when cultural depictions of the AIDS crisis for gay men began to ebb. Some of these movies ended in heartbreak or death for the gay characters, of course — part of a long thematic tradition of portraying explicitly or possibly gay characters as suffering hatred, illness, suicide and death.
Such tragic plot points were especially common in the theater of the 20th century, from Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour” (1934) and Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer” (1958) through “The Laramie Project” (2000). In the 1980s and early ’90s, however, the stories of gay men in plays like “As Is,” “The Normal Heart,” “Jeffrey” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” often rendered loving or lonely characters against a backdrop of activism and ideological criticism of the seeming indifference of government and society to fighting AIDS or treating gay Americans as equal citizens.
The new shows this season, meanwhile, are at their heart about remarkably unremarkable love stories — romantic or platonic — among gay people. In some ways the shift from explicit political statements to subtler storytelling reflects the debate in gay political circles about whether to continue fighting at the ballot box and in the courts for gay rights immediately or instead to take a longer view that involves building alliances and giving time for more Americans to come around on issues like gay marriage.
Now running in addition to “Yank!” and “Next Fall” are the plays “The Pride,” which explores being gay in the 1950s and today; “The Temperamentals,” about a real-life gay couple that includes Harry Hay, one of the founders of the pioneering gay rights organization the Mattachine Society, in 1950; and a revival of “The Boys in the Band,” the landmark 1968 play about a group of gay men who are a kind of family to one another.
Coming up are a new Off Broadway musical “The Kid,” about a gay couple adopting a child, and the Broadway revival of “La Cage Aux Folles,” which, in this production, is homing in not so much on show-stopping drag numbers but rather on the love story of a gay couple who have raised a son together. Several other forthcoming shows also have gay themes, like the Broadway productions “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” — and “Looped,” one of the few instances this season of a gay-tinted show focusing on a woman, in this case one who has at times been attracted to other women.
The change that this New York theater season reflects, said Tony Kushner, the author of “Angels in America,” is that the demographics of H.I.V. and AIDS have changed radically, and that outright discrimination against gay men and lesbians is no longer unchallenged or broadly acceptable in American society.
“The gay community today is definitely in a post-Act Up period, and theater has begun to reflect some of that,” Mr. Kushner said, referring to the political action group that Larry Kramer, the author of “The Normal Heart,” and others founded in 1987 to advocate for gay people and others with AIDS.
“The marriage issue and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ are the two major issues now, which is not the same place that we were in as a community when I was writing ‘Angels’ in the late ’80s and early 1990s,” he added. Mr. Kushner’s newest play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” is his first work about gay issues since “Angels,” but AIDS is not as central in the new work. “Angels,” meanwhile, is set to have its first major New York revival next fall.
Mr. Kramer said that he has seen an evolution in plays with gay themes over time. “The Boys in the Band” was the first long-running Off Broadway show about gay life, and its 1,000 performances encompassed a period of police raids and arrests at gay bars, including the night, in June 1969, of the Stonewall riots. In the 1980s and ’90s “The Normal Heart,” “Angels in America” and other plays took aim at the Reagan and Bush administrations, among other targets. Today, finding support for AIDS research remains a major struggle. But Mr. Kramer said that playwrights and audiences now seem to have an appetite for a broader array of gay stories, whether political or not.
“I think we’ve reached the stage where anything goes in shows about gay characters, and we’re seeing plays with more themes than those that are explicitly political or are about oppression alone,” Mr. Kramer said.
The producers and authors of these new productions echoed one another in separate interviews, saying that they saw these works as love stories and human interest stories rather than political tracts. Daryl Roth, one of the lead producers of “The Temperamentals,” said she was drawn to the play in part because she has a gay son, Jordan, the president of the Broadway chain Jujamcyn Theaters.
“Obviously, part of this is personal, as I’ve always wanted to learn more and understand more about gay life, and think others have the same curiosity,” she said.
Bernie Telsey, one of the producers of “The Pride,” said that he too saw his play as a story about the true nature of relationships and love, and that he could see audience members — regardless of sexual orientation — relating equally to the themes.
“My wife recently mentioned to me that I’d never described ‘The Pride’ as a gay play, and that’s true,” Mr. Telsey said. “In the last 10 years it’s really been the movies and television that have been leading on gay love stories. I feel like theater has started to catch up with that.”
By PATRICK HEALY (http://www.nytimes.com)