Sunday, July 14, 2013

Damaged Goods

While popular mythology might suggest that most gay men are handsome, buff, financially secure, and enjoy active social lives, that's not always the case. Many are out of shape (both physically and financially). Others have limited social skills. And some have been deeply scarred by rejection, abandonment, gaybashing, internalized homophobia, and/or the death of a loved one.
  • Some dutifully lick their wounds until they start to heal. 
  • Some retreat into their shells and restructure their lives in order to keep themselves safe from emotional conflict
  • Some may yearn for a fresh start, but their attempts to make contact with new people can be sabotaged by all the emotional baggage they bring to the table.
"Bitter?  Party of one?"

At long last, there is an opportunity for drama queens to sing along with selections from The Irving Berlin Songbook For Tortured Egos. Is everybody ready? And-a-one, and-a-two, and......
"Anything you can ruin, I can ruin better.
I can ruin anything better than you!
No, you can't.
No, you can't.
No, you can't.
With a warped pattern of rationalization learned in childhood ("Step on a crack, break your mother's back") some gay men will cook up bizarre excuses for avoiding any chance of letting something good to happen to them..
  • If I take fewer steps, there's less chance of falling.
  • If I go straight home from work every night, I can avoid meeting strangers.
  • If I don't let this man into my life, he can't hurt me.
What happens when the more neurotic gays of our lives become involved with someone who embodies their biggest fear and their best fantasy? Repressed emotions are sure to erupt. Like a volcano, the process is often shockingly messy, overly dramatic, and occurs in waves of self-destructive behavior.

* * * * * * * * *
Consider the case of Bob (Jonathan Lisecki), the protagonist of Ringo Le's new film, Big Gay Love. Bob is  a successful event planner in Los Angeles. Although frequently surrounded by "beautiful people" who constantly tell him how funny and fabulous he is, Bob is thinking of purchasing a home in a newly fashionable neighborhood filled with gay couples who have adopted children.

The house he's considering would be a perfect home for a growing family, but Bob is very much a loner who is married to his career. Chubby, pasty-skinned, and with an acute talent for self-deprecation, he's perfected the art of feeling sorry for himself.

When two of Bob's closest friends -- Aidan (Todd Stroik) and Chase (Ethan Le Phong) -- take it upon themselves to help Bob find a boyfriend, they soon discover that they're dealing with a painfully insecure gay man so acutely aware of how far he lies below the standards of gay male beauty that he's quick to beat anyone to the punchline of a fat joke.

Ethan Le Phong and Jonathan Lisecki in Big Gay Love

To make matters worse, Bob's meddling, man-hungry mother (Ann Walker) is a narcissistic nightmare, a former actress hoping to make a comeback who has absolutely no sense of personal boundaries. Imagine Mommie Dearest with a fat gay son!

Todd Stroik, Ann Walker, and Ethan Le Phong in Big Gay Love

One night, as he is about to leave a catered affair, Bob gets hit on by a handsome man who turns out to be a celebrity chef. Like Bob, Andy (Nicholas Brendon) is a hard worker who has little interest in the superficial aspects of the Los Angeles gay scene.

Like many chubby gay men, Bob can't believe that Andy could possibly be attracted to him. His warring instincts (trying to make the friendship work while trying to destroy any hope of romance) come to blows after he lets a close friend who is an editor read Andy's book manuscript. When Bob nags Andy into attending a pool party with him, things go horribly wrong. With his insecurities at fever pitch, Bob even considers undergoing plastic surgery in a desperate attempt to make himself more attractive to Andy.

In the following clip from Asians on Film, Ringo Le talks about the evolution of Big Gay Love:

How Bob and Andy fare on the rocky road to love is nicely handled in Le's script. Unlike many romantic gay films, both leads are defined by their internal rather than their external beauty. Ann Walker is frighteningly hilarious as Bob's monstrosity of a mother while Ken Takamoto has a nice supporting role as Mr. Chan (a street vendor who sells Vietnamese sandwiches). At the end of the film, there's a nicely written scene in which an obese young fan (Harvey Guillen) gushes over Andy at a book signing and receives some surprising words of encouragement.

Jonathan Lisecki (who was so wonderful in 2012's Gayby) gets a chance to show off his wide range while Nicholas Brendon glows as the warmer, deeper, and much less hysterical hunk who lights up Bob's life. Ringo Le describes his film as "a love letter for everyone who's ever wanted to be accepted for themselves regardless of their color, shape, or size."

Big Gay Love offers viewers a refreshing change from formulaic rom-com films and the usual run of vapid, twink-heavy gay sex farces. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Richard Isen's new show, Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right, is all about getting a second chance in life. Inspired by some of his personal experiences at the height of the AIDS crisis and directed by Robert Kalfin, the show revolves around three archetypal figures:

Gregory (Richard Hefner) is a 55-year-old gay man living in San Francisco. An organizational psychologist with enough income to own a house and decorate it with collectibles, he is desperately lonely and more than a little bitter. Several years ago, a former boyfriend got sick with AIDS and moved back to the Midwest in order to die near his family. Since then, Gregory has evolved into an intense control freak who is much too scared to get emotionally involved with anyone. There is, however, an attractive young hustler with a monetized webcam whose handsome features keep luring Gregory back for another look at his webpage.

Gregory (Richard Hefner) and Chance (Ken Lear) in a scene from
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
 (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Chance (Ken Lear) is young, attractive, and aware that his studly looks are probably the only thing he's ever really had going for him. When Chance fled his home town, he left behind a a life of being bullied in school and at home. Once he arrived in San Francisco, however, he quickly learned that his most marketable asset was located in his crotch. Unfortunately, every month another hundred hustlers get off of the bus. Many of them have succumbed to AIDS.

Gregory (Richard Hefner) and "The Lady" (Randy Roberts) in
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The Lady (Randy Roberts) could be an archetypical drag queen, a figment of Gregory's fervid imagination, or his preening alter ego. Posing like Gloria Swanson, as glamorous as Joan Crawford, as bewitching as Bette Davis, and as streetwise as Charles Pierce, she's obviously been around the block a few times. However, as a relic from an earlier era of cinema, she knows nothing about computers, chat rooms, credit cards, and social media. The Lady (who appeared out of thin air after Gregory suffered a heart attack) could be his muse, his spirit guide, or an intrusive idol. One thing's for sure: decked out in a stylish turban and lots of costume jewelry, she's one hell of an enabler.

Randy Roberts as "The Lady" in
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk and Getting It Right
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While Isen's musical has three distinct characters whose lives have become inextricably entangled, it also feels like a puzzle whose pieces don't fit together all that smoothly. Despite a clearly defined and highly dramatic first act curtain (and a finale that leaves the audience guessing about what happens to Gregory and Chance), the show suffers from some structural problems.

Is it a tense gay drama or a song cycle for a drag queen with a good voice? Isen's score includes some strongly-written, bluesy-jazzy, musical numbers that serve as a combination of torch songs and commentary for The Lady (click here to listen to samples from his score). Here's Randy Roberts singing "Something Cooked Up In Your Mind" in concert.

The New Musical Theatre of San Francisco (which is presenting Chance - The Musical at the Alcove Theatre) is:
"...dedicated to the development and production of original musical works for the stage. It is our mission to develop dynamic, challenging, and richly nuanced world premiere musical theater works and to nurture local artists to create highly artistic productions with uniquely San Francisco voices, perspectives, diversity and issues. Our vision is to present relevant theatrical experiences that deeply move our audiences, offer far-reaching insights and transform their perspectives on the human condition."
Isen has peppered his script with inspirational quotes from Oscar Wilde that can double as bon mots and palate cleansers between scenes. Spoken by accompanist Tammy Lynne Hall (who brings a nice jazz sensitivity to Isen's score), these start to lose their appeal with surprising quickness.

Randy Roberts and Tammy Lynne Hall appear in a scene from
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Although some members of the audience seemed quite moved by Chance - The Musical, I found myself confronted with four oddly-jarring questions:
  • A gay artist may be inspired to open up and explore old wounds, but does that necessarily mean they contain a musical?
  • Once a composer/playwright latches onto a specific structural gimmick, is he in danger of overusing it?
  • Is the timing of this premiere working against it? In 1963, one of the most beautiful musicals of all time (She Loves Me!) premiered when Broadway was heading away from waltzes and embracing rock 'n' roll. I wonder how well Isen's show will resonate with an audience that is currently embracing same-sex marriage and for which AIDS has since become a manageable disease. People may not see the miserable "good old days" as something they want to revisit.
  • Last, but not least, is the question of whether Chance - A Musical is being created for the right medium. As the show progressed, I found myself wondering if this story might unfold better in a cinematic format -- perhaps to be made available on YouTube. I think it would benefit immensely from a chance to move the action around and place more emphasis on Gregory, whose story is presently being overshadowed and constantly interrupted by The Lady's musical numbers.
Gregory (Richard Hefner) and Chance (Ken Lear) in a scene from
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
 (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While the performances by Richard Hefner and Ken Lear were often affecting, at present the show seems tilted a little too much toward becoming a showcase for The Lady. My hunch is that Chance - The Musical might be a whole lot stronger onstage if Isen can judiciously trim about 20 minutes from his show. Here's the trailer:

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