Sunday, September 9, 2012

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Assholes bore me. Although some of them have been close friends, they're no longer a part of my daily life.
  • Chuck was a young gay man who felt trapped growing up in a small town like Fall River, Massachusetts. Highly intelligent, libidinous, and resentful of authority figures, he fled to San Francisco in 1971, hoping to start his life all over again. Like the proverbial kid in a candy store, he found as much sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll as he could ever hope for. Convinced that no gay man should live past 30, he shot air into a vein and, by the time drugs had ruined his mind, finally succeeded in his quest for an early death.
  • David was a gay cop that I met at the gym. A great storyteller with a noticeable drinking problem, he was a precursor of today's conservatives: someone who swallowed Republican dogma hook, line, and sinker and worshipped Ronald Reagan as his adoptive father. After too many friends succumbed to AIDS, he panicked and married a woman.
  • Michael was a superintelligent programmer who couldn't stop multitasking. Despite a tendency to tailgate, he occasionally tried to read the paper while driving across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Cursed with the need to always be right, after his AIDS medications seemed to diminish his libido, Michael insisted that his physician administer testosterone shots. The result was an appalling spike in his narcissistic and dysfunctional tendencies, which made him as annoying as a speed freak.
Although these three men once lit up my life, at some point the magic wore off. I learned a lot about myself from them and was lucky enough not to join them in their self-destructive behaviors.

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People who fall in love with writers are often warned that whatever they say or do during the course of their relationship may one day show up in print. In the case of Ira Sachs, who had diligently maintained diaries and archived email exchanges with his former lover, Bill Clegg (a literary agent whose 2010 memoir entitled Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man detailed Clegg's struggles to overcome his problems with substance abuse), the details and plot line were already at his fingertips. All he had to do was write the script.

Keep The Lights On is a candid, intimate film that depicts the kind of relationship that can develop between two gay men who meet through a personal ad. Unlike more traditional dating, the idea is to fuck while the fantasy is still hot and leave any cuddling or chitchat for later. If there is sufficient compatibility, a "blow-and-go" encounter may actually lead to spending the night or repeat engagements.

Thure Lindhart as filmmaker Erik Rothman in Keep The Lights On

When it comes to casual hookups, love, fidelity, and "sharing" are concepts that are usually kept on hold, with no great expectation that they will get their moment in the spotlight. That's how Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhart), a Danish independent filmmaker working on a documentary about artist Avery Willard, first hooks up with Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth), a lawyer working at Random House.

It's 1997 in New York. Recent advances with anti-retroviral drugs and a growing awareness of safe sex precautions have helped many gay men feel more comfortable about pursuing random hookups. As always, such men are horny and predisposed to a bit of sexual adventure.

Though he may be closeted, Paul is obviously experienced at gay sex. One senses a talent for negotiation as he informs Erik that there's a woman in his life and warns his handsome visitor not to get his hopes up.

Zachary Booth as Paul Lucy in Keep The Lights On

During their first encounter, the two men feel an easy and natural attraction for each other. While Erik is a procrastinator who is having trouble finishing his documentary, Paul turns out to be battling multiple compulsions (drugs and sexual addiction). As their relationship deepens and runs into trouble, Erik finds himself trapped in the age-old co-dependent predicament of "Can't live with him, can't live without him."

Thure Lindhart and Zachary Poole in Keep The Lights On

Erik's work as a filmmaker frequently requires him to leave town. In his absence, Paul finds it difficult to control his sexual appetite or resist his craving for crack cocaine. Alarmed by his partner's tendency to disappear for days at a time, Erik even tracks him down by answering one of Paul's sex ads. When he discovers his lover in a hotel room with a hustler, he's even willing to sit beside Paul as his lover shoots up and shoots off.

Numerous humiliations ensue. When Erik wins a Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival and excitedly tries to reach Paul on his cell phone, there is no answer. In the end, Paul's addiction becomes unmanageable and causes the relationship to rupture.

This is not a new story about how one man's addiction can destroy his relationship. Not by any means. And, while the sight of gay New Yorkers trying to cope with an abundance of random sex and drugs may shock some, in Keep The Lights On it is portrayed as fairly ordinary.

Poster art for Keep The Lights On

Both protagonists give strong performances as gay men trying to hold onto each other's love over the course of a rocky decade. I was especially happy to see footage from an interview with James Bidgood (whose beefcake photography impacted and inspired millions) as well as a fleeting glimpse of the Broadway Plaza Hotel, where I stayed during my last trip to New York.

Some may find Keep The Lights On to be shocking in its casual acceptance of drug use but, if you've lived in a major city with a large gay population, it's simply another slice of gay reality. Sachs's unflinching candor and the cinematography of Thimios Bakatakis greatly enhance this film. Here's the trailer:

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It doesn't take long to figure out that the protagonist in Jonathan Marc Feldman's new drama, The Death of the Novel (which received its world premiere production from the San Jose Repertory Theatre last week) is a narcissistic young dickhead who takes delight in manipulating others and considers himself to be quite a bit smarter than anyone who might ever try to help him. Although he's suffered the loss of his mother, a girlfriend, and watched from the window of his elegant loft in Tribeca as the Twin Towers collapsed following the September 11, 2001 aerial attacks, Sebastian Justice (Vincent Kartheiser) is not now -- nor does he ever plan to be -- a particularly likable character.

Although Sebastian claims to be the most well-adjusted, depressed agoraphobic living in lower Manhattan, it's not really agoraphobia that has prevented him from leaving his apartment since 9/11. Sebastian has grown into an extremely self-indulgent and self-sufficient brat. In addition to the royalties from his best-selling first novel, he's received a hefty advance for his second book. He knows how to pick up a phone and have supplies and groceries delivered to his door. Other than recurring visits from hookers and FedEx delivery men, he is more than content to be left to his own devices (even if one of them is self delusion).

Vincent Kartheiser (Sebastian) and  Vaishnavi Sharma (Sheba)
in a scene from The Death of the Novel (Photo by: Aja McCoy)

Snappily and snottily ensconced in his heavily secured ivory tower (there are at least four locks and bolts on the door to his loft), Sebastian is a 21st-century poster boy for independent living. Unfortunately, his globe-trotting best friend Philip (Patrick Kelly Jones) is worried about the young author's self-imposed exile.

Mr. Justice's publisher has even arranged for a female psychologist, Dr. Perry Cray (Amy Pietz), to pay a house call to his procrastinating author. Sebastian wastes no time in labeling her as "a writer's block whisperer."

Dr. Perry Cray (Amy Pietz) and Sebastian Justice (Victor Kartheiser)
in The Death of the Novel (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

For all the huffing and puffing onstage as Sebastian tries to outwit, outmaneuver, and manipulate Dr. Cray, what never gets mentioned is the fact that he may be suffering from impostor syndrome. The success of his first novel was very much due to the fact that Sebastian clinically calculated what elements were necessary to make his book a bestseller (as opposed to being a well-written novel). Faced with the onus of a hefty advance and a potential deadline, part of Sebastian's problem may be his terror of being unmasked as a literary fraud.

Vaishnavi Sharma as Sheba  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As I listened to Sebastian's lengthy, self-serving Act I arias (which cried out for a ruthless editor) and observed how Feldman had structured his play so that everything revolved around Sebastian (and none of the other characters really experience any development), I began to wonder if Sebastian wasn't the only narcissistic dickhead involved in this project. Perhaps the playwright was simply writing what he knows.

What makes the first act of Feldman's play such a curiosity is that shifts in time are mostly signaled by Vincent Kartheiser disappearing offstage to change his shirt. As directed by Rick Lombardo, The Death of the Novel attempts to portray a tragically wounded boy wonder in desperate need of psychological help to guide him through the process of grieving for certain unresolved losses. Among Feldman's cheesy character gimmicks are:
  • Claire (Zarah Mahler), the prostitute with creative ambitions who is so grateful to Sebastian for passing her manuscript on to an editor that she waives her future fees as a sex worker and tries to develop a romantic relationship with him.
  • Dr. Cray, the coldly clinical shrink who, after being rejected by a potential client, falls in love with him and waives her professional fees in order to keep paying house calls to Sebastian's apartment.
  • Sheba (Vaishnavi Sharma), the mysterious Saudi sexpot who read Sebastian's book, fell in love with the author, seduced his best friend as a way of meeting him, and has since become the muse who haunts the young writer as he heads toward a nervous breakdown.

Contrary to the playwright's belief, the creative challenge is not how to get Sebastian to leave his apartment by the end of the evening. Instead, it is (a) how to get the actors to rise above the tedious insipidity of Feldman's script, and (b) how to keep an audience interested in the overbearing assholery of a hack writer who is disgusted by his own success.

Philip (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Sebastian (Victor Kartheiser)
in The Death of the Novel (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

By the time Sebastian's delusional and paranoid behavior escalates to the point where he heaves his Weber grill from his balcony (prompting a visit from the police and a trip to jail), no one in the audience gives a shit about his emotional well being (he was obviously too cowardly to jump). When Feldman's protagonist returns home from jail, Sebastian is the same obnoxious jerk he was at the start of the evening. Looking a bit more rested, he's now smiling and more curious about the outside world.

While the ability to have Victor Kartheiser (familiar to local audiences from his appearances in the Mad Men television series) as a box office draw surely helped with ticket sales for The Death of the Novel, the real star of the evening is John Iacovelli's handsome revolving unit set, which dominates the stage and rises above the wretched bog of Feldman's horribly ovewritten script with a simple and majestic beauty.

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