Friday, August 28, 2009

Hung on HBO

Thomas Jane and Jane Adams in Hung.

HBO’s new summer series about a man whose anatomy becomes his professional destiny is not the first place I’d look for feminist television programming. And yet Hung turns out to be a wonderfully smart, funny, and indeed feminist story of a down-on-his-luck middle-class white history teacher-basketball coach whose wife divorces him, whose house burns nearly to the ground because of an electrical short in an overloaded extension chord, and who can’t get his life together, financially, emotionally, or pragmatically.

Ray Decker, played by the handsome, valiant Thomas Jane, is an otherwise ordinary man, beset with all the problems of someone whose best years are well behind him. He was a high school baseball star, who married his high school sweetheart, never left the Detroit suburb where he was raised, and in fact lives in a tent in the backyard of the house he inherited from his parents, which burns in a catastrophic fire in the series opener. He’s an average white guy stuck in his own history, who never progressed beyond his teenage success.

His wife, Jessica, the now-faded cheerleader, played by Anne Heche in parodic high dudgeon, has left him for Ronnie (Eddie Jemison), a high school geek who grew up to be a plastic surgeon (he gives Jessica shots of Botox after their morning coffee). Ronnie is short, blinkered, and socially clueless; it’s clear Jessica is more attracted to his money than to his body. Ironically, mid-way through the season, as the economic downturn hits, Ronnie announces that they aren’t rich anymore, leading Jessica’s busy-body mother (who looks like Dr. Ruth and speaks with an inexplicable Eastern European accent) to ask Jessica if she has to keep “giving him sex.” While Jessica dismisses her mother’s concern, in a later scene, as Ronnie rolls her way to nuzzle her ear in their marital bed, Jessica summarily announces that she’s not in the mood, predicting a lot of bad sexual luck in Ronnie’s future.

In an effort to improve his odds financially, Ray enrolls in a how-to-get-rich-quick seminar led by Floyd Gerber (Steve Hytner), whose large teeth, bad haircut, and empty inspiration reads as big-L loser immediately. In the seminar, Ray reconnects with Tanya (Jane Adams), a goofy poet with writer’s block with whom he had and has again a one-night stand. When their second tryst derails emotionally, Tanya’s accusation that all Ray has going for him is a “big dick” begins an entrepreneurial opportunity for both of them. The unlikely couple embarks on an even more unlikely business venture called “Happiness Consultants,” in which Tanya pimps Ray out to various sexually frustrated (or curious) middle-class suburban housewives.

If Ray is hobbled by his own stasis, Tanya’s earnest ambitions are enough to motivate them both. Although she’s a bohemian writer trying to be a vegetarian, she takes her work as Ray’s pimp very seriously. Part of the series’ comedy comes from watching Tanya navigate in the very unfamiliar waters of sexual capitalism. She’s been unable to write for years and works as a permanent temp as a copy editor in a law firm. But starting this business on the side with Ray let’s her aspire to the personal, intellectual, and especially financial freedom that she hopes will enable her creativity. Tanya’s “alternative” values are never belittled by the show’s writers, but her self-taught cutthroat business sense makes for a comic comparison with her otherwise progressive ethics. Tanya has a nasty mother who dismisses her (played by Rhea Perlman) and isn’t particularly pretty (in fact, in most scenes, Adam’s face is made up with a kind of oily sheen), but she’s vital and lively and cares about things in a way that Ray can’t fathom.

The unlikely affection between Tanya and Ray is utterly appealing as they begin to develop a friendship based on their business partnership. Thomas Jane and Jane Adams have great chemistry and work well off each other. The whole cast, in fact, has a nice bead on the show’s quirky humor, which treads a fine line between satirical and sincere. Heche’s Jessica, for example, who still has feelings for Ray, is surprised but generous when Tanya comes to see him coach a basketball game. Tanya joins the strange family easily, befriending Jessica as she cheers awkwardly (for the wrong team).

Ray’s twin kids, Damon (Charlie Saxton) and Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), are disheveled teenage misfits with weird dyed hair and soft, puffy bodies. But their peculiar relationship to both parents, neither of whom knows exactly what to do with them, gives Ray and Jessica something to bond over. When Charlie pierces his tongue, for example, both parents are horrified. Jessica, maintaining her forced cheerleader cheerfulness, doesn’t understand a thing about her alienated, goth-leaning children, but her attempts to reach them prove funny parodies of the over-sharing, trying-too-hard parent. Saxton and Smit-McPhee do a nice job performing the kids’ incredulity at their parents’ stupidity. The kids’ allegiances shift depending on which parent has more money and the most comfortable place to house them.

Hung seems to be a story about failure, about the losers with whom people associate or who they inadvertently become, but the series’ pleasure comes from the small ways in which the characters succeed in each episode, whether sexually or financially, and the little ways in which their kindness toward one another makes their lives worthwhile.

The series also demonstrates perfectly how people perform what they think others want them to be. Ray’s role as the star of Happiness Consultants isn’t natural to his personality. He might be well endowed, but he needs to be tutored by Tanya in how to play the suave, debonair male prostitute they think their clients expect. The writers regularly prove that no one’s interested in his social performance; only his sexual performance matters, and in that, he always succeeds the way he and Tanya promise.

But in each assignation, Ray learns something about himself and about women. Early in their endeavor, on his first visit to a client, Ray balks at her middle-age, plump body, begging off with a cold. After Tanya scolds him about judging people on their appearances, Ray returns, only to find the woman now skittish about following through. She admits she’s sick of her husband’s inability to please her, but only when Ray shows her the goods is she persuaded (and eagerly excited) to complete the transaction.

In fact, none of the women Ray services are conventionally attractive or behave “normally.” Tanya persuades a sexually frustrated, homely proofreader colleague from work that she’d enjoy employing Ray. Their scene together in a hotel room is a gem, as the woman unmasks their meeting as only a fantasy in which she knows Ray is playing a role, but then happily goes along with it by letting go of her own inhibitions and gleefully repeating, “Let’s fuck” until they do. In all of these instances, Ray is happy to comply, and seems vaguely moved at what he sees in these women.

At the same time, although it’s Ray’s anatomy that provides their income, Ray is the objectified sex worker, a nice role-reversal in the cosmic scheme of conventional prostitution or pornography. Ray is not the agent of his own destiny; it’s Tanya who sets up his meetings, and who scolds him when he tries to arrange dates on his own. Tanya interviews potential clients, assessing their needs and how Ray can meet them. If their business is at all successful, it’s because Tanya understands the emotions that drive their clients’ sexual desires and talks Ray through how to satisfy each customer.

In another neat foiling of presumption, Ray falls in love with Jemma (Natalie Zea), a particularly complicated client with a host of unusual demands. When he tries to date her and begins refusing her payments, she purposefully hurts him. A contrite Tanya realizes too late that Jemma’s game is to construct Ray as the victim in their relationship, to avenge her own victimhood in past relationships. But the scenario upends the assumption that for men, sex is only physical, while for women, it’s emotional, since here the roles are exactly reversed. Ray’s hapless naiveté is partly what makes him so appealing. His masculinity isn’t built to handle the situations in which he’s called on to act. He needs Tanya’s help to navigate the emotional currents of his trick’s needs. But he’s charming in part because he rises to each occasion (literally, of course, and figuratively).

Hung is a really a family drama, with a twist that makes it interesting and a perspective that makes it feminist. No one here is starry-eyed about the American Dream; everyone knows that it’s precarious at best, diseased and desiccated at worse. But the series finds something sweet and poignant, rather than resigned and bitter, about the prevailing state of affairs, drawing the characters’ humanity against the odds. In the last episode, Ray, devastated by Jemma’s betrayal, gets drunk in a bar where he’s recognized by an old rival, a man who pitched against him when he was a senior in a high school and still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Ray, who was a freshman, batted his pitch out of the park. In pouring rain, the men head to a baseball field to relive the moment. The older man throws Ray a duffel bag full of balls one by one, and one at a time, Ray hits them away, saying, “Contact,” after he manages to connect with each pitch. The other man’s middle-aged body is paunchy and sagging as he winds up to throw, the outlines of his mortality palpable against his wet shirt. Ray looks only marginally better as he sways over home plate. The men barely speak, but the scene is a wonderful, soggy illustration of lives stuck in place.

Happily, it’s the proto-feminist Tanya who gives them all hope, who swats away references to her own inferior looks (a constructed claim, since Adams is actually very cute), who glows with newly found confidence, who schemes about ways to increase their business, and who engages her clients with tough pragmatism and no-nonsense business ethics. Adams plays beautifully the blooming power of the underdog who comes into her own. In the last episode, as Ray stumbles back to his tent wet and drunk to find Tanya waiting for him with a wad of cash from Jemma, Adams and Jane perform a sweet scene of friendly intimacy, need, and pleasure that portrays one of the most moving, innovative, insightful relationships on television.

Watch Hung.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nurse Jackie Revisited

Jackie (Edie Falco) and her husband, Kevin

Now that the first season of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie has ended, I was happy to find out that the show has officially been renewed. After I last wrote, the series only got better, more complicated, more darkly funny, and occasionally, poignantly, sad.

One of the most interesting things about Edie Falco’s leading character, Jackie, is that she has no real back story. Although we know that she has a husband and two young daughters with whom she lives above the bar they own in Queens, and that she has a pharmacist lover named Eddie with whom she has sexual trysts every day at work, we don’t know why she keeps her two lives so resolutely separate. We also don’t know why she’s a drug addict, aside from the usual stress (and temptation) that plagues some nurses in chaotic, poorly staffed and resourced city hospitals.

Rather than becoming irritating, however, Jackie’s mystery adds to her allure. She’s an enigma not just for her co-workers—who alternately find her brusque and sensitive, present and distracted—but also for viewers accustomed to having characters’ histories laid out with too many dollops of information. Instead of a pat psychological reason for her odd behavior, we’re asked to go on faith that Jackie needs her life the way it is. The reasons don’t matter, only that she’s able to maintain the fine line of keeping her separate worlds far enough apart and her addiction hidden.

Only halfway through the first season does it become clear that even Jackie’s best friend at work—Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best), who’s officially her superior—doesn’t know about her drug problem. When Jackie’s nose begins bleeding from all the drugs she’s snorting, O’Hara checks out her nostrils and comments that she doesn’t know what Jackie’s been putting up there, but her sinuses are entirely irritated. Jackie responds with her trademark eye roll and brushes her off.

[Spoiler alert!]

When her lover Eddie is replaced by a computerized machine that dispenses meds, Jackie’s need and desperation become palpable for the first time. With Eddie down the hall happy to ply her with Vicodin and other narcotics that make her sexually pliable, Jackie didn’t have to worry about her next fix. Without him present, she tries to game the machine the way he taught her, but the trick doesn’t work. She winds up punching in her own name and password to retrieve three vials of drugs, which she proceeds to pour down her throat without a chaser.

As the final episode of the season ends, Jackie drifts into a drug-induced haze, hallucinating herself dressed in 1950s white nursing finery, and waving to her husband and kids, who stand in front of a two-dimensional, cartoon-like, suburban-style ranch house wearing 1950s-styled clothing, waving at her robotically. Sprawled on the hospital floor comatose, Jackie can only watch these images play out in front of her as the scene fades to the credits.

The moment, typical of the crises that usually propel a series to the closing moments of a season, is disturbing and compelling. Is Jackie afraid of being trapped by the conventionality of her domestic family life? Is that why she has a secret affair with Eddie, and doesn’t tell any of her coworkers that she’s married and has two kids? Is she smart enough to want to resist the banalities of middle-class white heterosexuality, even as she’s clearly, at an earlier point in her life, decided to acquiesce to it? Does she take drugs because of her back pain (which isn’t mentioned much as the show progresses), or because she needs to take the edge off a life that can’t contain everything she feels herself to be?

Whatever the reason, to see a woman as complicated and wonderfully opaque as Jackie Peyton (shades of the old soap, Peyton Place?) anchor a series on a major cable network feels like something of a triumph. Jackie isn’t a perfect mother—in fact, although she takes her oldest, the troubled Grace, to mother-daughter tap dancing classes, Jackie’s skirmish with an old high school friend embarrasses both of them and they abandon the class. Jackie isn’t the perfect wife—she works nights, which means that she and her husband are passing ships in a domestic sea that’s often barely functional.

Jackie isn’t the perfect nurse—she operates under her own moral code, which means that sometimes, she breaks rules to favor people she decides won’t otherwise get a break. She’s unsympathetic with her trainee (although over the course of the season they’ve developed something approximating a warm understanding) and she’s flip with her superior. She’s a flawed middle-aged woman, a character not often enough seen on television.

Although these days, that’s not entirely true. Jackie Peyton joins the ranks of Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) on The Closer; Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), on Damages; Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) on Weeds; and Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) on Saving Grace, all of whom are middle-aged white women with “issues,” whether drug addiction, dire financial problems, alcohol abuse, or power mania that make them as complicated and imperfect as the male heroes who more typically star in television series.

The surrounding characters on Nurse Jackie help flesh out the quirky environment, and each became more adroitly drawn and magnetic as the season proceeded. Although Mohammed de la Cruz, Jackie’s best friend on the ER floor, remains something of a cipher, his desire for other men has been flaunted happily throughout the season. And instead of being the lone gay man, another of the male nurses—the white guy with sandy hair and a more fey demeanor—is also openly queer. The two often perform scenes together, in which they cruise patients or tell Zoey, Jackie’s bumbling assistant, how she might improve her appearance. Although these characters still trade in stereotypes, at least there are two of them on the show regularly, creating a small but important queer community.

Likewise, Zoey has become sharper in her own zesty, over-sharing, over-caring style. By the season’s end, the character had come to think she knew Jackie, a rather endearing assumption, given all of Jackie’s dark and mysterious layers. Merritt Wever, as Zoey, is ever more fabulous in the role, her comic timing impeccable and her physical humor deft.

The best supporting character, however, is Mrs. Akalaitus, played by Anna Deavere Smith in one of her best scripted acting outings. In the season finale, Akalaitus gets stuck in an elevator, and rather than hurry to rescue her, the nursing staff lets her languish before they call for repairs. To entertain herself (and us), Akalaitus props herself against the stuck doors and pretends she’s being interviewed on the Letterman show.

Smith carries off the brilliant, hysterical bit of business with panache, and reveals the human side of the character. The scene tempers her rule-bound ambition, just as Akalaitis’s attachment to an Asian baby left behind (for weeks, it seemed) in the ER earlier in the season showed her softer side (although the storyline was far-fetched and her failure to call in the authorities completely out of character).

Watching a series as smart and morally, emotionally, and ethically complicated as Nurse Jackie, peopled with so many interesting, unique, and individualized women and gay male characters has been a real treat. That the story proceeds from a flawed woman’s perspective feels like progress indeed.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Temperamentals

Michael Urie, Tom Beckett, and Matthew Schneck in a scene from The Temperamentals
(photo © Michael Portantiere)

Gay plays, as they’ve proliferated and mainstreamed over the last 10 years, tend to address relationships between lovers, friends, and family. Plays by and about gay men often delve into sexual conquests and disappointments; the more exploitative ones use nudity to draw audiences and encourage a prurient, if fun, spectatorial pleasure. Plays by lesbians, which thanks to gender discrimination remain relatively fewer than those produced by or about gay men, tend to be more relationally based, dwelling on family dynamics and the domestic sphere.

I’m overstating grossly here to underline how refreshing it is to see a play about gay (or “homophile”) activism in the 1950s as the focus of an evening at the theatre. Written by Jon Marans, The Temperamentals tells the story of Harry Hay, considered by many historians to be the father of the U.S. homophile movement, who doggedly persuaded men to sign the manifesto of what he called The Mattachine Society. The Society was named after a troupe of medieval dancers who only appeared publicly in masks, an apt metaphor for closeted homosexuals of the ‘50s. Hay was the first to publicly call gays and lesbians a “minority” and to argue for homosexual rights along the lines of what would soon become the civil rights movement.

As an event happy to succeed by telling its important story, this production’s one acquiescence to commercial pressure is director Jonathan Silverstein’s casting of Michael Urie (of tv’s Ugly Betty fame) in one of the supporting roles. Although some of his tv character’s flaming gestures and flamboyant sarcasm seeps into his performance as Rudi Gernreich, Harry Hay’s young Viennese-Jewish clothing designer boyfriend, Urie’s acting is subtle, generous, and sincere, bringing depth and intimacy to the complicated exchanges between the two lovers.

In fact, all of the acting dignifies a slightly too earnest script. Marans skillfully describes the difficulties of being the least bit “out” and homosexual in the early 1950s in the situations he sketches. For instance, although he was one of the first gay proselytizers, Hay was married (to a woman) through much of his initial activism. And while he was aggressive about asking famous but closeted men (like film director Vincent Minelli, who makes a campy, sad appearance as a character here) to sign on to his manifesto, Hay’s own paranoia made him reject Rudi’s more public gestures of affection, so terrified was he of inappropriate display. The Temperamentals' perhaps most important contribution is its portrayal of just these contradictions and the social disapprobations from which they rose.

As it traces the beginnings of a language for gay activism (well before the word “gay” was commonly used to name homosexuals), some historical contrasts become amusing and poignant. For example, Hay and his few faithful compatriots—energetically portrayed by Tom Beckett, Matthew Schneck, and Sam Breslin Wright, who impersonate an array of good buys, bad guys, and the occasional woman, lesbian, or mother—discuss whether or not gay men should be allowed to get married . . . to women. One of the few lesbian voices in the play belongs to a radical butch who says she’d never marry, unless it was to a woman. The script deftly highlights historical shifts in its construction of these conversations, as it leads the audience to understand how the course of events and the contours of activist discourse have changed over the last 50-odd years.

Although gay news outlets, bloggers, and commentators have lately expressed disappointment in President Obama’s failure to follow through on his campaign promises about LGBTQ issues, watching The Temperamentals is a happy reminder that progress has indeed been made for gay men in U.S. culture and politics, despite what the movement still needs to accomplish. For example, when Rudi networks his way into an apprentice position with a noted, publicly visible clothing designer, the man tells him in no uncertain terms that Rudi requires a wife by his side, implying that the field’s obvious homosexuality needs to be defended by the normalizing choice of fake marriages. A spectator need only think of the overt queerness of a tv show like Project Runway to note how far gay male visibility and acceptance—in fashion design alone—has come since the early ‘50s.

Throughout the story, Rudi pressures Harry to leave his wife, Anita. Ironically, when Harry finally gathers the courage to tell her that he’s a homosexual, Rudi finds himself marrying a woman coincidentally also named Anita. The moment’s sadness, necessity, and ubiquity resonates as a poignant reminder of what gay men in the 1950s gave up to lead socially and professionally successful lives. Vincent Minnelli, who’s played as a limp-wristed, lisping, utter stereotype of a gay man who couldn’t pass for heterosexual if he tried, explains to Harry and Rudi that his career took off when he married Judy Garland.

Director Silverstein leads the audience to see that while from a contemporary perspective, these men would never be mistaken for straight, the persistence of the closet, and the social contract that enforced a purposeful refusal to see sexuality as anything but heterosexual, required the kind of visible and public declarations for which Hay fought. What queer theorist Eve Sedgwick would by the 1990s call the “open secret” of homosexuality clearly operated in the 1950s as a way to repress progressive public discourse about sexual fluidity and choice. The men Hay approaches to sign his manifesto believe in his work, but they can’t risk their lives and livelihoods by lending it their signatures.

Even hard won declarations of agency were often foiled. In one scene of The Temperamentals, the working class, police officer boyfriend of one of Hay’s friends is entrapped in a public bathroom by another police officer, who cruises him for sex then arrests him. While most men tricked in these situations pled guilty, Harry persuades this man to insist on his innocence. When he does, and the judge decrees him not guilty, the triumphant activist moment is defanged and neutralized when the press refuses to cover it. The moment goes unnoticed, unwritten as history that matters.

Many of Hay’s inner circle are portrayed as racist and anti-Semitic in The Temperamentals, despite their willingness to fight for their own homosexual rights. Maran does a nice job complicating identity politics with such contradictions, as these men fail to find common cause with other oppressed people unless their struggles provide helpful models. That Rudi is Jewish and his family dead at Auschwitz gives Harry a built-in analogy through which to ply a gay rights manifesto. But a general lack of political affiliation with people unlike him seems to weaken Hay’s cause, just as it would decades of subsequent too-white, too-middle-class, and too-assimilationist LGBTQ activism.

Although Marans’ script covers important moments in 1950s homophile activism, the characters mostly appear to be ciphers or stereotypes, mouthpieces for history rather than embodiments of people who are more than cogs in a predetermined wheel of time and social change. And although the script details the impossible contradictions of closeted gay life in this period, Marans lets a preachy didacticism creep into his writing, particularly in the second act. More judicious editing for length and tone would enhance the play, whose potential is signaled by the five actors and Silverstein’s sensitive, fluid direction.

The theatre at the Barrow Group space on 36th street in which I saw the production (on August 7, 2009) was set up with spectators seated on two sides of the stage facing each other, raked up from the square wooden platform that provided the playing space. The surrounding audience seemed to embody the ever-present hegemony that enclosed Hay and his gay friends. Silverstein moved the actors through various locations using only six wooden chairs and a few props (a telephone, a clarinet, some pieces of clothing), cutting away extraneous visuals and business to focus on their human interactions.

The actors succeeded in finding the humanity of men (and the occasional woman) struggling to make sense of lives few words described in the 1950s. Even if some of the subsidiary characters are caricatured by the script, Beckett, Schneck, and Wright draw them sharply, with respect and care for what they represent in the history told.

As Hay, Thomas Jay Ryan provides a square-jawed performance, finding an arc of emotional growth in a man who begins by protesting (too much) his masculinity, only to begin a second movement 25 or so years later, this one called The Radical Fairies, in which he rejected conventional maleness for the free-flowing garments and gestures of men who refused gender constrictions and embraced spirituality.

Ryan finds generous ways to communicate Hay’s necessary contradictions, as his radicalism and conservatism bump up against each other through the period The Temperamentals covers. With Michael Urie as his sympathetic if bemused, ambitious but frustrated lover Rudi providing a lovely, warm emotional grounding for Hay’s barnstorming, Ryan delivers on the sense of promise in the pioneer’s vision.

Even though its script devolves into platitudes toward the end, The Temperamentals offers a necessary, gentle reminder of how difficult it was for two men to create physical, emotional, sexual, and political spaces in which to be together not so very long ago. For that, it’s worth celebrating—and seeing. It closes in New York on August 23rd.

The Feminist Spectator