Saturday, July 11, 2009

Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

A friend of mine actually married his high school sweetheart. Thirty-five years and two grandchildren later, they are still very much in love.

Not everyone is that lucky. Many people founder in the pursuit of love. Some think that one quick moment of lust will develop into a lifetime of unselfish devotion. Others succumb to infatuation and try to overwhelm a person with their advances (whether the object of their affection is the slightest bit attracted to them often doesn't even figure into their plans).

Some become stalkers, others become withdrawn. Some hide in closets, others fly to Argentina. The problem is not just that some of these people are incapable of being honest with themselves. Some are genuinely clueless about what they want and how to get it. Whether acting out of fear, frustration, grief or insatiable lust, their desperation only serves to underline their basic insecurity.

Three productions recently examined what happens when those who are hungry for love target the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. In each instance we see characters who feel they had become trapped in a rut. While their desire to break the mold and live out their fantasies is genuine, their methodology is all too often inarticulate, clumsy, and doomed to failure.

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Scheduling conflicts prevented me from catching a performance of Fayette Nam until the very end of its run at Thick House. Thankfully, the Asian American Theatre Company's world premiere production of this new play by Aurorae Khoo proved to be well worth the wait.

In her playwright's note, Khoo explains that:
"As we are promised withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and as economic times stateside toughen, it is easy to sweep this war to the corners of our minds. I hope this play reminds us how life at home stumbles along and is fractured under the looming threat of loss and conflict in the Middle East. The town of Fayetteville, North Carolina is a character in this play. The city is not-so-affectionately known as 'Fayette-Nam.' It is also home to Pope Air Force Base ('No-Hope Pope') and Fort Bragg, one of the largest military bases in the country. Fayetteville is often in the news when the President stops by to make a speech or when it is voted 'town most supportive of our troops.' But this play tries to explore the unheard voices of Asian Americans and other minorities trying to survive on a civilian street (Bragg Boulevard) in the shadow of the military industrial complex."
Set in and around a donut and eggroll shop, Khoo's drama revolves around four unhappy souls who feel trapped by their life circumstances. They are:
  • Jerome Dupree (Jon Gentry), a young African American soldier about to ship off to Iraq. Raised by a strict grandmother in Oakland, he lacks the macho bravado of his comrades, is still a virgin, misses his BMW, and is acutely aware that he doesn't fit in with the rest of the troops. In recent weeks, Jerome has sought out the company of an older woman who seems to be a good listener. Over the course of nearly 20 visits to her donut shop, he has developed a crush on Laura-Lai and would like nothing more than to run away with her and avoid the responsibility of going to war.
  • Laura-Lai Lee (Lisa Kang), a middle-aged Chinese-American woman whose husband abandoned his family and left her to raise two children on her own. A Southern Belle wannabe, Laura-Lai dreams of moving to Paris and opening a patisserie where her life could be filled with romance and sweets. In reality, though, she has been trying to woo a military officer as a second husband -- even though he seems far more interested in younger women who can't speak English. In the cozy recesses of her fantasy world, Laura-Lai may be a fiery lover but, in real life, she maintains a fairly implacable front to her children.
  • Debbie Lee (Kathleen Mendoza), is Laura-Lai's daughter who has suddenly returned home from New York. An angry, spiteful and rebellious young woman who could easily turn into a talented arsonist, Debbie started a fire in one of Columbia University's dorms after her Caucasian roommate caught her trying on the roommate's expensive underwear. Filled with self loathing (as well as contempt for her mother), Debbie tries to seduce Jerome as soon as she realizes that Jerome has a crush on her mother. She also tries to convince the AWOL soldier to run away with her to California and help her try to find her father.
  • Connor Lee (Kenneth Tan Ronquillo), is at that awkward stage of spastic puberty where his body language betrays every conflicting thought. Debbie's younger brother desperately wants to be included among the white boys on his school's baseball team, but he is little more than a bat boy/go-fer to them. Having developed a pubescent crush on a white girl from school, he has become a rather clumsy peeping Tom. Although he obviously looks up to Jerome (and no doubt has a man crush on the tall, handsome, African American soldier), more than anything else in the world Connor would like to escape from the tyranny of a life spent in his mother's donut shop.
Kenneth Tan Ronquillo

In his director's note, Duy Nguyen (co-artistic director of the Asian American Theatre Company) writes:
"I love this play. I didn't start off loving it, though. I did start off with respect. But when it refused to yield to easy answers and formulas, to easy deductions about people and their strange blatant behavior, I paused, then thought, and thought, and thought.
How do you love someone who hurts you but would give their life for you? How do you tell love from sex? From confusion and expectations? How do people change? How can words of affection or sorrow be misunderstood as insults? And how are some insults, really, a cry of love? How do intense intellect and feelings deal with grease, donuts, and trash? How do they?
Day after day, with all the years behind, and all the years that stretch forth, uncertain, unchangeable, unresponsive. Yes, I love this play."
The unconditional love for Khoo's drama that was obviously channeled into Nguyen's staging (and embraced by AATC's talented ensemble) went a long way toward anchoring a complex evening in which multi-layered characters are forced to battle with their warring instincts and emotions. Although Lisa Kang and Kathleen Mendoza delivered strong portrayals of a competing mother and daughter, it was the two men whose performances made the evening glow with theatrical magic.

Using his obvious skill as a dancer, Kenneth Tan Ronquillo gave a phenomenal performance as the frustrated teenage Connor, who keeps feeling pulled in every direction by his conflicting loyalties and testosterone-driven fantasies. I was deeply impressed with Joe Gentry's strangely grounded portrayal of the wavering Jerome. Should Gene Simmons (the leader of KISS) ever decide to retire, Mr. Gentry's long and impressive tongue may prove to be a major asset in pursuing an international stage career.

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Soon to be seen at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Sallie Aprahamian's Broken Lines examines how two normally upright Jews succumb to lust as a way of exorcising the grief that has recently taken over their lives. At first glance, Jake (Dan Fredenburgh) would seem to have everything going for him. A successful real estate developer living in upscale Kingston Upon Thames, he is about to marry a teacher named Zoe (Olivia Williams).

An unexpected phone call brings the sad news that Jake's father, an elderly tailor, has died and Jake must help clean out his father's shop. Although his father abandoned Jake's mother, Jake has never forgiven Leah (Harriet Walter) for finding a new lover, David (Sidney Kean). When Jake returns to the old neighborhood and enters his father's store, shadows of the past come crashing down on his shoulders. A terse encounter with Leah doesn't make things any better.

Stopping into a local cafe to calm his nerves, Jake notices a kind waitress who prevents two youths from stealing his wallet off the table where he is seated, staring out the window at his father's storefront across the street. Although B (Doraly Rosa) may be sweet and earthy, she has her own burdens in life. Her husband, Chester (Paul Bettany), is a former boxer who has become disabled. Like many caretakers, B feels trapped and frustrated, but is intensely loyal to her now psychologically and sexually impotent husband.

Although B's employer, Yoss (Nathan Constance), and fellow waitress Rae (Rita Tushingham) are more than willing to cover for her during Chester's moments of need, there are some things they simply cannot do to bring any light into B's life. The self-pitying Chester has refused any visits from his former gym buddies and is becoming increasingly self-conscious about being a burden to his wife.

When Jake becomes obsessed with B (and learns that he can watch her being intimate with Chester through the rear window of his father's shop), he quickly loses interest in his impending marriage and begins to stalk B. Although they finally get to consummate their passion in the darkness of the old tailor's shop, there is no hope for a future between them.

After Chester manages to fatally harm himself, Jake calls off his engagement to Zoe and parts company with B. Several years pass until one night, as Jake and his pregnant girlfriend are out taking a stroll, he spots B carrying the guitar he once gave her as a gift. She's now single, much more self-assured, and pursuing her dream of becoming a musician.

The intense performances by Bettany, Rosa, and Fredenburgh are all top notch. And it's wonderful to see the great Rita Tushingham (who got her big break in 1962's film adaptation of Shelagh Delaney's play, A Taste of Honey) on screen again.

Broken Lines offers audiences a mature drama in which the stereotypes of the "good Jewish boy" and "good Jewish girl" get blown to smithereens by two needy adults with aching emotional wounds, moments of burning lust, and some very real cravings for intimacy. Aprahamian, who has directed her cast with great sensitivity, is aided immensely by Jean-Louis Bompoint's cinematography. Here's the trailer:

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While many reviewers are fawning over Lynn Shelton's new indie film, Humpday (which was hailed as a breakout comedy at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival), I was less than impressed. At least it's easy to pinpoint why.

I'm gay.

Sure, there have been hit films about straight men who get up in drag to save their lives (such as Billy Wilder's award-winning 1959 farce entitled Some Like It Hot). In 1982, Dustin Hoffman had a major success with Tootsie (as did Robin Williams in 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire). Both plots revolved around straight, married men who resorted to dressing in drag as a means of being near their children during a difficult separation.

Getting up in drag is all well and fine when you need a costume to hide behind. Going without any costume, however, is much riskier and might expose you to truths you weren't quite ready to face. That's exactly where Humpday runs aground. No doubt, you remember this classic childhood rhyme:
"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses
And all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again."
If you're straight and clueless, Humpday may offer some really nice laughs. But if you have even the slightest inkling of how many thousands of gay men have been subjected to aversion therapy and/or conversion therapy -- ranging from electroshock treatments to frontal lobotomy, from being disowned by their families to being terrorized by religious conversion camps and prayer circles in severely misguided efforts to force a change in their sexual orientation -- then Humpday's humor quickly turns sour.

For the sake of fairness, though, let's take a clinical look at the comic engine driving Shelton's film. Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) were best buds in college. Like many straight men, they developed a way of communicating with each other that involved little or no substance: gestures, grunts, friendly pats and touches that spared them the need for an extensive vocabulary.

Following college, Ben settled down into a comfy routine with his wife. He now has a home in the suburbs, a good job, and the kind of stability he always craved. Andrew, on the other hand, headed out in search of adventure (always imagining himself to be a wildly artistic kind of guy when, in truth, he was about as conventional and middle class as could be). Although he is self-aware enough to wish he could be "more gay," Andrew is a confirmed, unrepentant and impenetrable heterosexual. So is his buddy, Ben.

One night, Andrew shows up with his luggage on Ben's doorstep at 2:00 a.m. and moves right in (to the utter consternation of Ben's good sport of a wife). The two men quickly revert to their college-era patterns of communication.

The next day, Andrew heads out to party with some "artistic types" and insists that Ben come join them. Although Ben's wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) has changed her plans so she can make her special pork chop dinner as a welcoming gesture for Andrew, her importance to the moment is quickly trivialized by the two men.

While Ben and Andrew are busy smoking dope with Lily (Trina Willard) and Monica (Lynn Shelton), Andrew gets the first sign of his basic sexual inadequacy when (after assuming that he would become the studmeat in a threeway with two bisexual women) his equipment is laughingly dismissed in favor of their oversized and frequently used pet dildo. Fleeing the scene in a state of stoned confusion, Andrew -- whose wounded ego obviously can't compete with the "strap-on, strap-off technique" -- refuses to back away from the project he has committed to with Ben. Nor is he likely to ask for directions.

At some point that afternoon Andrew and his friends had agreed that it would be an absolutely brilliant idea for him to shoot an "art film" and enter it in Hump! -- which is billed as "the Pacific Northwest's biggest, best, and only amateur (and locally produced) porn festival." The gimmick they've come up with as stoners? Andrew and Ben will produce, direct, and star in a gay porn film. The simple fact that their film is being made by two righteous straight guys will obviously make it qualify as an art film.

Okay, class -- what's wrong with this picture?
  • Ben and Andrew obviously have not watched a whole lot of gay porn.
  • These two straight dudes who claim to be best friends for life have never stopped to wonder if they are at all physically attracted to each other.
  • Without erections, penetration, some cock sucking and cum shots, their project won't have much to recommend it as a gay porn film.
  • The two men are totally clueless about the thousands of straight men who have become "gay for pay" porn stars.
  • Although they have access to a digital camera, Ben and Andrew know absolutely nothing about how to make a film.
  • Last but certainly not least, they've conveniently forgotten to inform Ben's wife, Anna, of their plans.
Are you laughing uncontrollably yet? Does this top the homophobic "ick meter" for you? Probably not. Why? Because, despite all of their macho posing and unwillingness to back away from this obviously ill-conceived project, Ben and Andrew can't even talk about sex, much less try to have sex with each other.

Lynn Shelton's film may, however, have achieved something the filmmaker never intended. While hoping to create a tender, funny indie film about a bromance that just won't ignite, what she has really accomplished is something that an army of psychologists, psychiatrists and gay activists have been unable to achieve. Shelton has found a way of teaching heterosexuals that if they can't figure out how to change the sexual orientation with which they were hard-wired at birth, they have absolutely no business preaching that homosexuals could just "go straight" if they really wanted to.

You think people have stopped doing that? Think again. In September of 2008 a "Love Won Out" conference organized by the loathsome James Dobson's group, Focus on the Family, was held at Anchorage's Abbott Loop Community Church (which is supported by Sarah Palin's Wasilla Bible Church). The goal of the conference? To train attendees in ministering to gays and lesbians in an effort to convert them into the "ex-gay" movement.

I tip my hat to Ms. Shelton for finding a way to deliver an important message about biology and sexual orientation within a friendly and comedic framework to which any straight lunkhead can relate. Even if I didn't find Humpday to be a very satisfying film, I hope to hell that millions of Christian bigots and other homophobes watch Shelton's little movie. Once their homophobic snickering subsides (and they find comfort in learning that their own sexuality is safe and secure), maybe they'll come to the realization that it's time to leave other people alone and mind their own fucking business!

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