Thursday, April 18, 2019

Breaking Free From the Closet

It seems so long ago that people were chanting "Out of the closets and into the streets." And yet, if you live long enough, you can truly be amazed by what you have seen.

In November of 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The following year, he gave his now-famous "Hope" speech on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall. In the following clip, Sir Ian MacKellan recites Milk's words with the same dramatic weight he has given to some of Shakespeare's characters.


Well aware of the homophobia he faced, Milk had the foresight to record a message to be played in the event of his assassination (which occurred on November 27, 1978).


A lot has happened since that fateful night, starting with a plague of HIV/AIDS that decimated the gay community, wiping out an entire generation of talent. Thirty years after Milk's assassination, the first African American President of the United States (Barack Obama) was voted into office after campaigning on a message of "Hope and Change." On June 26, 2015, the ruling handed down by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges established same-sex marriage as the law of the land.

As part of 2019's worldwide celebrations honoring the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, New York's Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre will present a festival of readings from June 20-24 under the umbrella of Pride Plays. Among the works to be performed are 1980's Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (by Jane Chambers), 1985's As Is (by William M. Hoffman), 1992's The Baltimore Waltz (by Paula Vogel), 1995's A Language of Their Own (by Chay Yew), 2006's Some Men (by Terrence McNally), 2016's Le Switch (by Philip Dawkins), as well as Eat and You Belong To Us (by MJ Kaufman), and On This Morning (by Caroline Prugh). As one of the festival's co-producers, Michael Urie, explains:
“For so long queer stories were about how, if you come out, something bad happens to you. Or if you’re gay, you’ll be beaten or institutionalized or you’ll end up killing yourself. While that is all absolutely a part of the history, we want to look forward to the hopeful times ahead of us, where queer characters will be embraced and celebrated for who they are.”
On Sunday, April 14, Pete Buttigieg officially announced his candidacy for the office of President of the United States in a moving speech delivered in his home town of South Bend, Indiana. As momentous as the occasion was politically, a tweet from his husband put a remarkable spin on the day's events.

Today was unreal. But what I am even more blown away by is that this morning my husband woke up early, fed the dogs, went to church, came home, and wrote that launch speech by himself. He never fails to amaze me.

The next day, while "Mayor Pete" was being interviewed by Rachel Maddow, the following exchange took place.


That's what real progress looks like, especially for anyone who has been traumatized by the years they wasted living a closeted lifestyle.

* * * * * * * * *
It's an old joke that Sophie Tucker made famous (and was given new life by Bette Midler). "What do you get when you cross a donkey with an onion?" The answer, of course, is that "Sometimes you get an onion with long ears but, if the stars are aligned just right, you get a piece of ass that makes you want to cry." That's a perfect way to describe the New Conservatory Theatre Center's West Coast premiere of The Gentleman Caller, a play by Philip Dawkins focused on two of America's most important playwrights from the mid-20th century.

This production is a stunning triumph for Dawkins and NCTC, probably one of the most intellectually stimulating, emotionally fulfilling, and thoroughly entertaining new plays you will see all year. These days, it's incredibly rare to encounter a play so magnificently crafted that, at the end of Act I, a person could go home perfectly satisfied that he had spent a wonderful evening in the theatre. Where so many playwrights stumble through Act II, Dawkins only gets stronger. Perhaps that's because he's working with the souls of two gay men who, in addition to being raging alcoholics, can easily behave like gods or monsters.

Brennan Pickman-Thoon (Tennessee Williams) and
Adam Niemann (William Inge) in a scene from
The Gentleman Caller (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Born in Independence, Kansas on May 3, 1913, William Inge began his theatrical career in 1943 as the drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times. Four years later (and encouraged by Tennessee Williams) his first play, Farther Off From Heaven, was produced. Subsequent successes included 1950's Come Back, Little Sheba, 1955's Bus Stop, 1957's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and 1959's A Loss of Roses. In 1953, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Picnic (a 1975 reworking of that play entitled Summer Brave was produced posthumously).

Three of Inge's plays (The Boy in the Basement, 1966's Where's Daddy? and 1972's The Last Pad) featured openly gay characters. He won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Splendor in the Grass. Unfortunately, Inge spent much of his adult life in the closet and, on June 10, 1973, he committed suicide at the age of 60 by carbon monoxide poisoning.

By contrast, Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi) was a relatively happy hedonist. A sickly child who cared deeply for his older sister, Rose (who had undergone a lobotomy), he developed into a prolific writer whose ability to create complex roles for women led to 1944's The Glass Menagerie, 1948's Summer and Smoke, 1951's The Rose Tattoo, 1953's Camino Real, 1957's Orpheus Descending, 1958's Suddenly Last Summer, 1959's Sweet Bird of Youth, 1960's Period of Adjustment, 1961's The Night of the Iguana, 1962's The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (a rewriting of Summer and Smoke), and 1963's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.

Williams received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (one for 1947's A Streetcar Named Desire and the other for 1955's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) in addition to writing a popular novel entitled The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone which received film adaptations in 1961 and 2003. Though he battled chronic alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression, his death on February 25, 1983 at the age of 71 was the result of choking on a plastic bottle cap.

Adam Niemann (William Inge) and Brennan
Pickman-Thoon (Tennessee Williams) in a scene
from The Gentleman Caller (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Dawkins has written a fictionalized version of how the two playwrights met by placing Act I in St. Louis in November 1944 (as Williams meets Inge in the hope that an interview will result in a favorable profile written about him in advance of the upcoming Chicago premiere of his play, tentatively entitled The Gentleman Caller). Act II takes place on a bitter cold New Year's Eve following the successful opening night of his play, which has been re-named The Glass Menagerie.

While some members of the audience may arrive at the theatre convinced that they know all about Tennessee Williams, it is Inge whose neuroses drive the action. Williams may be a relatively mellow drunk who can find simple pleasures everywhere in life (whether it be another glass of booze or spying on two lesbians making love in an apartment across the street from his hotel room).

Brennan Pickman-Thoon (Tennessee Williams) and
Adam Niemann (William Inge) in a scene from
The Gentleman Caller (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Inge, however, is a tortured closet case who is uncomfortable in his own skin and filled with self-loathing. Not knowing how to react to a comparatively free spirit like Williams (who is not the least bit ashamed of his homosexuality), Inge starts off on the wrong foot with a clumsy attempt at raping Williams (who wouldn't mind having sex a handsome man, but is more focused on getting a story about himself published in Inge's newspaper).

Theatregoers familiar with plays written by Williams will have themselves a field day picking up hints about Blanche DuBois, Maggie the Cat's impotent husband (Brick) and the many other conflicted characters who populate his scripts. Along the way is a trail of barbed and witty digs at everyone from Laurette Taylor to Bette Davis.

Adam Niemann (William Inge) and Brennan
Pickman-Thoon (Tennessee Williams) in a scene
from The Gentleman Caller (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Working on an exceptionally handsome unit set designed by Kevin Landesman and beautifully lit by Chris Lundahl, NCTC's production benefits from Keri Fitch's costumes as well as the sound design by Kalon Thibodeaux. But it is the astute direction by Arturo Catricala and Brennan Pickman-Thoon's powerfully seductive portrayal of Tennessee Williams that anchor the show. Don't get me wrong, Adam Niemann offers a solid performance, but Inge's self-inflicted jealousy, misery, and constipated emotional state (combined with a royal stick up his ass) serve primarily as a foil to Williams's spontaneous wit, self awareness, and brilliant grasp of the English language.

For those who have been lucky enough to be spared the agony of living a closeted lifestyle, The Gentleman Caller offers a stark reminder of what internalized homophobia can do to priests, politicians, and young people who have been raised by hyper-religious parents (I left the theatre once again thankful to have been raised in a family of atheists). For straight people who don't quite understand what all the fuss is about, here's an opportunity to witness the psychological damage inflicted by trying to hide from your true self (although you will be able to laugh your way through much of the evening).

Performances of The Gentleman Caller continue at New Conservatory Theatre Center through May 5 (click here for tickets). Don't miss this production!