Saturday, April 14, 2007

Terrence McNally's Some Men at Second Stage in NYC

Terrence McNally’s reputation as a bankable out gay playwright and adaptor precedes him, so it’s not surprising that this spring alone, he has two plays running in New York: Some Men, the Off Broadway trifle recently produced at Second Stage, and Deuce, starring Angela Lansbury and Marion Seldes as two aging tennis rivals, opening on Broadway in May. McNally’s brand of liberal gay storytelling and conventional, comfortable dramaturgy makes him a natural for popular audiences; no doubt Some Men will become a staple on the regional theatre circuit.

Or maybe not. Because despite its rather pat resolutions and rather unsurprising turns of plot and character, Some Men does address the history of gay men over the last fifty or so years, and tries to put in perspective the seismic shifts in their politics and their emotional and sexual practices. With a company of seven men—one or two slightly older, the others mostly 30 somethings, all white except for one African American man and one or two perhaps Latinos—McNally creates a generationally and genealogically overlapping crowd whose adventures tell an episodic story of the highs and lows of American gay men’s recent past and present.

The stage is first set—quite beautifully, in fact, by set designer Mark Wendland—at the Waldorf Astoria, where in the opening scene a disparate group of men forms to attend a wedding. One is a couple fighting about who remembered or forgot the wedding gift; another is a father attending alone; another is a young man in uniform; another is a rather disheveled young punk; and another is playwright/actor David Greenspan, camping (already and always) through the scene. The stage is decorated almost completely in white, and graced with one wall of mirrored tiles, huge heavy chandeliers, and a baby grand that give the proceedings a sense of both gravitas and wealth. White wooden chairs face out to the audience; throughout the play, director Trip Cullman uses vaguely Brechtian devices to position the audience as a participant in the history the play unravels.

From here, the play leaps backwards and then forwards again in time, offering a non-chronological travelogue of key moments in the recent gay male past. The scene at the Waldorf bumps back to the late 60s or early 70s, when Mayor Lindsay regularly sent vice squads to entrap gay men staging assignations at hotels, and finds a married man arranging a tryst with a hustler whose day job is being an English major at Columbia. The hustler reassures the anxious married man, instructing him to take off his shirt and the rest of his clothing, acting more like a nurse than an erotic companion.

(The night I saw the production [March 30, 2007], the Second Stage audience seemed to tense, just a bit, wondering how far this strip would go, and seemed to feel palpable relief when it ended before the men were fully, frontally nude. As a subscription-based theatre, many of its spectators are white, middle- or upper-middle class, and heterosexual. Many of them are dressed up, as though this is a night on the town that differs from their regular routines. For Some Men, at least a third of the audience was white gay men.)

The military man approaches the older man at what’s turned into his son’s funeral, and subtly helps the mourning man understand that his son was loved, even if his lover was a man. A stockbroker maintains an affair with his Irish chauffeur, blithely unaware of how his class privilege and power plays out in their East Hampton relationship. Men face computers (and the audience) and flirt with each other in chat rooms, making up fantasy identities and exaggerating their physical (and sexual) attributes. An encounter group trades pop psychology aphorisms and affirmations, skimming the surface of complex emotions.

Some of these scenes are bogged down with dogmatic, didactic writing, in which McNally tells rather than shows the politically correct and incorrect consequences of his characters’ actions. A moral judgment underlies each scene, which too easily categories the characters as “heroes” or “villains,” as prescient or deluded. Some men in the early years want to be out and proud; others suggest that “’gay is good’ is crap; gay sucks,” and insist on staying in their marriages and remaining closeted. Patrons at a piano bar circa 1969 ostracize a drag queen who arrives looking for companionship, refusing to serve men who won’t abide by gender-appropriate rules of dress and comportment.

As they congratulate themselves on their conservative complacency, sounds of a riot can be heard from a bar across the way that’s clearly the Stonewall Inn, since this is the night of Judy Garland’s death. One of the more radical men leaves his friends to join the riot, while the straight-acting gay men agree that laws are fucked up but find activism too “strident.” They remain by their piano, singing wistfully to “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” in a moment that at once points out the apathy and sadness of preppy gay men pre-Stonewall, but at the same time reminds us that gay history wasn’t written only by those who rebelled. McNally’s portrait underlines how history happens in ways that affect us whether or not we participate in its making. As they hum along to Garland’s signature song, one of the two show queens asks the other, “Would you marry me if you could?” establishing what seems then like an impossible wish as a way to measure current progress.

For, at the end of Some Men, the wedding does indeed take place, the once-unthinkable joining in matrimony that’s now, in some places in the US and abroad, legal for gay men and lesbians. “Will you marry me?” is answered with an emphatic “I do,” as if there were any doubt that this might be the right answer, regardless of which men form the couple. Even though McNally has fun presenting scenes in the notorious gay baths—where the older men want to see the performers and the younger men only want to have sex—and, for the more contemporary “some men,” in anonymous chat rooms that promise potential live assignations, like any many conventional “tramedies,” the play moves inexorably toward marriage as its final, most meaningful, right, true act of faith. Those years of raided bars and sex in bathhouses, McNally suggests, are safely in the past, now that gay men can assimilate into these hallowed heterosexual practices.

Perhaps to McNally’s credit, it’s the young gay men in Some Men who rush to marry, not the older ones, who seem content with their relationships in the outlaw form they’ve always taken (and in most places still take). When two “gender studies” majors from Vassar arrange to interview “older” gay men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, McNally uses the occasion to insist that gay men were happy before Stonewall, even if they weren’t “out and proud” and weren’t able to marry or commit in public civil unions. His genealogy is in some ways nostalgic for a moment before conventionality set in, although his memories of the baths are about finding partners with whom to couple, rather than a more licentious, happily promiscuous and anonymous expression of sexual practice.

The one black man in the cast plays a variety of characters, from a show queen in a long-term committed couple to the therapist in a group encounter scene that’s rife with pat “truth or dare” situations and moments of uninspired twenty or more questions. But his salient tokenism here begs at least a casting question. None of the characters are specifically raced one way or another. Why not cast more people of color, so that Some Men won’t look so inexorably white? Why not write more characters of color, so that when the play is picked up by the regionals, they’ll be encouraged to cast a more multiracial group of actors? Why not use the highly public forum that a popular playwright like McNally commands to make a point about diversity in the gay male population, even if these characters are more moneyed and privileged than most (and in that way conform to the most insistent stereotype of gay men, which is their command of huge amounts of disposable income, which is true really of only some men)?

Likewise, no women characters flesh out this community. Why aren’t gay men ever accused of separatism, when so many of their rituals and places of entertainment and their theatre and performance are in fact sex-segregated? Women rarely get even a mention in Some Men and none live on stage. Again, it’s McNally’s choice to create whatever his imagination (and conscience) dictates. But what kind of gay male world is represented when no women at all even orbit around their planet?

Era-appropriate music introduces and plays under each scene, from “Crimson and Clover” to other touchstone melodies for people of a certain age. In fact, Some Men aims its wistfulness squarely at an older generation of gay men, which is meant to shake its collective heads at the foibles of the young queers who flaunt their radicality as they don their wedding rings. His project means to gently remind us of recent history, while we ride blithely into a sanctioned future with empty soup cans and streamers flying from the backs of our (family) cars. His wants to be wry and rueful about how history has changed the social position of gay men, but Some Men isn’t sure whether to celebrate this assimilation or to be nostalgic for days rife with the excitement, mystery, and even the danger of their underground status.

Finally, McNally brings us full circle, back to the wedding scene that writes these particular middle- to upper-middle class into a traditional family scenario (in the second East Hampton beach scene, two couples even bring their new babies along and trade stories about formula and feedings). Some Men wants to teach queer youngsters something about the old days, but ultimately, in his affectionate, slight portrait, the old days don’t look much different from the new.

A woman among some men,
The Feminist Spectator