Sunday, June 17, 2018

Are You With Me or Against Me?

Contrary to what you may have been taught in school, honesty is not always the best policy (just ask anyone who has ever answered a question with the words "Yes, dear"). While every parent has the right to believe their child is the most brilliant and most beautiful in the world, numbers don't lie. As a result, little white lies often help to prevent a never-ending stream of emotionally insecure meltdowns.

Alas, lies can lead to betrayal. Whether a lie is well intentioned or malevolent, it has a curious way of demonstrating how the personal can become political or, in some cases, how the political can become extremely personal. One need look no further than the recent schism with America's closest ally (initiated by Donald Trump's petulant and dangerously paranoid insistence that the mild mannered and extremely polite Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, betrayed Trump and "stabbed him in the back") to realize that one drama queen's need to be the center of attention can destroy years of communal work toward building a brighter future.

With Paul Manafort being sent to jail to await his trial (after evidence surfaced about his efforts to tamper with witnesses) and Michael Cohen indicating an increased willingness to cooperate with federal authorities, it's going to be interesting to see who screams the loudest about being betrayed by his fellow thug. My bet rests solidly on Trump who, prone to braying like a jackass at the slightest provocation, has always insisted on loyalty being a one-way street.

When the Chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, recently tweeted that "Complacency is our enemy. Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake," people were justifiably concerned that increased psychological pressure from the Mueller investigation was not only causing Trump to lose his marbles (although dementia and syphilis have also been suggested as possible factors contributing to his declining mental health), but that there are plenty of "good Nazis" in the Republican Party who are "just following orders."

Whether listening to a reporter ask the loathsome Sarah Huckabee Sanders if, as a parent, she lacks empathy (echoing Joseph N. Welch's question to Senator Joseph McCarthy: "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?") or reading Chauncey DeVega's recent article on entitled "Cut Trump Supporters Off: The Horror of Migrant Kids Taken From Parents Demands Personal Action," the ghastliness of watching Trump's bloated swan dive into full-blown fascism is neatly punctuated by the American Conservatory Theater's announcement that it will end its 2018-2019 season with a production of Eugène Ionesco's 1959 absurdist play, Rhinoceros.

Political betrayal comes with the territory. Personal betrayals hit home in a manner that can take a much greater toll. In 'Unthinkable, Immoral Act': Woman Ordered To Pay $375,000 For Sabotaging Boyfriend's Musical Career," Joseph Brean reveals a disgusting pattern of deceit employed by a woman who feared losing her lover to a brighter future.

Whether one thinks about Ronna McDaniel's disgusting tweet or Nikki Haley's constant warnings to her fellow delegates at the United Nations that "we're taking names and we will remember," it seems as if the United States is headed toward a 21st-century version of the Hollywood blacklist. Because artists were the most visible targets of McCarthy's red baiting, it's no surprise that several important pieces of theatre have kept the topic in front of audiences.

Jim Brochu's one-character play about Zero Mostel (Zero Hour) includes a tense scene which recalls the confrontation that occurred when Jerome Robbins was brought in as a "show doctor" during the out-of-town tryout for 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

In the following two clips, Brochu chats with Joe Gilford and Josh Mostel about their famous fathers and the effect the Hollywood blacklist had on their family life.

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TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is currently presenting the California premiere of Finks, a play written by Joe Gilford that received its premiere in 2013 from the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York and was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards (Best Actress and Outstanding Play) as well as the Off-Broadway Alliance’s award for Best New Play. Then, as now, the production was directed by Giovanna Sardelli.

Working on a unit set designed by Andrea Bechert (with costumes by Cathleen Edwards and sound designed by Jake Rodriguez), Gilford's play includes a welcome rendition of Harold Rome's perky "Sing Me A Song With Social Significance" (which appears on the 25th anniversary recording of Harold Rome's 1937 musical revue, Pins and Needles). Nevertheless, the play's recent staging was surprisingly underwhelming.

In Gilford's play, Donna Vivino portrays Natalie Meltzer as a talented and forceful entertainer who teaches her friend from Staten Island, Bobby Gerard (Leo Ash Evans) a few dance moves and occasionally accompanies him to social events as his "beard." Severely closeted, Bobby is a fictional version of Jerome Robbins while Natalie is the script's version of Gilford's mother, Madeline Lee.

Natalie doesn't mind helping Bobby get noticed, but quickly zeroes in on comedian Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek) as potential marriage material. An affable tummler who just wants to make people happy, Mickey (a/k/a Jack Gilford) finds it difficult to resist Natalie's aggressive charms. A woman with strong networking skills, Natalie quickly enlists Mickey's services for a benefit event (a move which turns out to have dire repercussions).

Donna Vivino (Natalie) and Jim Stanek (Mickey)
in a scene from Finks (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As the House Un-American Activities Committee embarks on ruining the lives of people it suspects of being Communist sympathizers, Natalie and Mickey must deal with (a) the fear of being dragged into HUAC's web as well as, (b) their anger at friends who have started to offer up names to the Committee. Lee J. Cobb makes a return visit to the hearings because he hasn't worked in three years. Elia Kazan doesn't hesitate to name names. Their close friend, Fred Lang (Gabriel Marin), thinks he's beyond HUAC's clutches until he loses his temper while testifying and ends up in jail, his career effectively destroyed overnight.

Elia Kazan (Michael Barret Austin) reveals the names of Communist
sympathizers in a scene from Finks (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What begins as a fairly entertaining play with musical moments quickly darkens as people's lives are caught up in the poisonous web of America's Red Scare and artists are traumatized by a shocking inability to find work. As the playwright explains:
"Being served a subpoena for testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee was a fearful moment in my parents’ lives and in all of their colleagues’. The law said that you had to answer to your full name and then be physically touched by the paper subpoena itself. Many avoided service by leaving town. But if you had jobs and kids to send to school, that wasn’t an option. In the summer, Fire Island was a colony of lefties and show folk. It was still affordable for working people too -- a beach paradise where you gave up shoes for three months and stayed in a swimsuit right up until dinner time. Subpoena servers weren’t known to venture out that far and would certainly have stood out in their business suits and black leather shoes."
Donna Vivino and Robert Sicular in a scene from Finks
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"I am blessed (maybe cursed) with an amazing long-term memory. One of the earliest memories, and certainly most shocking, took place at the entrance to our rented cottage one summer afternoon. My mother was returning from the market, hauling groceries in the traditional red wagon, with my brother (only about a year old) swaddled in her arms. There, behind a bush, she spotted two heavy leather shoes. And then in a moment, revealing herself, was Dolores Scotti, a reactionary actress earning extra money as a subpoena server. 'Madeline Lee Gilford!' Scotti called out. My mother was alert enough not to answer. When Scotti approached to touch her with the subpoena, her only defense was my little brother, Sam. Wielding the infant like a shield, my mother dueled with Scotti, dodging and weaving, blocking her with my brother so it was impossible for Scotti to touch her with the subpoena. In a few moments, my mother’s screams alerted all the surrounding neighbors. Now there was a mob and Scotti had to flee. She was literally chased to the dock and had to hop the next ferry home."
Donna Vivino (Natalie) and Leo Ash Evens (Bobby) dance the
Lindy Hop in a scene from Finks (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Strong performances come from Jim Stanek (Mickey), Donna Vivino (Natalie), Leo Ash Evans (Bobby), and Gabriel Marin (Fred), with Robert Sicular (Congressman Francis Walter), Richard Frederick (Lee J. Cobb), and Michael Barrett Austin (Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg) appearing in supporting roles. As the HUAC committee keeps pressing witnesses to provide more names, some artists use their creativity to preserve their integrity. Natalie resorts to the old gimmick of answering every question with another question. Mickey finally erupts and tells the committee members that they are the true enemies of America, not the artists and actors who can barely feed their families as a result of having been targeted.

Since seeing this production I've been trying to identify the factors which worked against its success. Some of the structural problems inherent in Gilford's script (that are aimed to show the contrast between the entertainment that professional actors provide for others as part of their job as opposed to the bitter farce taking place during the Congressional hearings held in Washington) end up seeming counterproductive. While numerous names are mentioned during the hearing, there are probably few people left in the audience who remember actors like Philip Loeb, Morris Carnovsky, and Lionel Stander.

Gabriel Marin, Richard Frederick, and Michael Barret Austin
in a scene from Finks (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

There's no question that Finks has an astonishing relevance to our current Constitutional crisis (or that the Gilford family's experience gives the playwright a unique perspective on the events portrayed). Oddly enough, one of the problems with the production may involve the venue in which Finks is being performed. The Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts is a cozy auditorium whose dimensions are wider than they are deep. This creates a comfy and expansive feeling for audiences who might better feel the drama's full weight if they were seated in a smaller, more claustrophobic environment.

Performances of Finks continue through July 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets). In the following video (beginning at the 11:33 mark), the playwright discusses Finks and explains why he chose to fictionalize his main characters and make them composites instead of naming names.

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From stand-up comics and fitness trainers to Olympic athletes and porn stars, the YouTube revolution has allowed countless individuals to build a following online, grow their presence into a brand, and use their creativity to transform a virtual performative space into a showcase for their talent. The Internet has also proven to be a powerful testing ground for dramas and sitcoms that can test the water to see if they can build an audience capable of attracting network producers with money to burn.
Cyberspace has also proven to be a godsend for minorities struggling to develop an online series whose webisodes can be aimed at a narrowly targeted niche audience. Among the popular series created for LGBT audiences are Husbands, Conq, The Outs, Not Looking, Derek and Cameron, Queer Kid Stuff, Drama Queenz, Steam Room Stories, Where the Bears Are, JasperJohns, Bait, My Sister is So Gay, The Hinterlands, My Gay Roommate, But She's My Best Friend, Hunting Season, Old Dogs & New Tricks, Danny the Manny, Hustling, In The Moment, Dudes, Go-Go Boy Interrupted, Chico's Angels, Gaycation, Camp Abercorn, and First Person!

While there is no guarantee of success, a good web series may get picked up by cable channels like Here TV, and Logo TV (which have strong LGBT appeal). Others may draw a large enough following to attract advertisers. Most, however, will probably run out of money at some point and cease production. A promising new series entitled Paper Boys has posted clips on YouTube and will have several episodes screened during the 2018 Frameline Film Festival. The promotional blurb for the series reads as follows:
"Hoping to escape a dead-end job and memories of a romantic fling, Cole secretly moves from New York to San Francisco under the guise of his straight best friend’s engagement party. After Daren gives Cole a rediscovered old sketchbook of Cole’s, Cole finds that it’s no ordinary sketchbook. Cole also runs into his former fling, Max, who has also moved to San Francisco. When Daren reveals that the engagement was an accident (and after Cole’s initial job search is unsuccessful), Cole uses the powers of the sketchbook to try to put both of their lives back on track, whatever the consequences."

Created by Curtis Casella and Kyle Cabral, Paper Boys stars the appealing and extremely likable Cabral as Cole with Nathan Brown as his best friend, Daren; Kai Liu as Daren's girlfriend, Rebecca; Henry Lee as Max, Kevyn Richmond as Max's roommate, Kalvin, and Sarah Elizabeth as Rebecca's close friend, Charlie. Thanks to Dan Chen's outstanding cinematography, the series also acts as a love letter to San Francisco's architectural diversity, the mysterious possibilities hidden in its fog-shrouded landscapes, and the city's long history of facilitating serendipitous run-ins between friends and lovers from one's past and future. As the creative team explains:
"We set out to create a show with two goals in mind. First, we wanted to tell a story with gay characters that was more than just a drama with gay characters. We wanted something more fantastical or high concept. Most shows featuring straight characters for straight audiences aren’t simply realistic dramas, so why should gay audiences have to settle for that with a gay show? Thus, we created the element of Cole’s magical sketchbook to inject a bit of magical realism into Paper Boys. This sketchbook’s power also allowed us to explore an aspect of being in one’s twenties that many, ourselves included, struggle with: how often it can feel like so much is outside of our control. With the sketchbook, we gave one character, Cole, the ability to control a little more of his life. Or to at least try to. Would he be happier with that power? Would others be okay with his interference in his and their lives?"
Kyle Cabral stars as Cole in Paper Boys
"Second, we wanted to create a show with elements that are underrepresented in the media landscape as a whole, and gay media in particular. One of those is diversity. Our goal was to feature a diverse cast -- a cast that reflected both ourselves, our friends, and our experiences in San Francisco. Racism is an issue in queer communities, and this diversity would allow us to show points of view not seen enough in media, gay or straight. We also wanted to create a show about a gay man and a straight man who are best friends. It’s a dynamic that many gay men experience, but we haven’t seen it explored in media as much as we’d like. How different are their experiences, and how does that affect their friendship? At its heart, though, Paper Boys is about discovering who you are and, perhaps with a little help from a magical sketchbook, becoming who you want to be."

While it's easy to recognize some plot points (while in a neighborhood grocery store, Cole starts to draw an object falling and hitting him -- moments later, a handsome African American "mathlete" catches the falling box of cereal and introduces himself to Cole), there are also lots of inside jokes which will draw laughter from those living with roommates as well as people who use Lyft and Uber.

Cole (Kyle Cabral) meets Kalvin (Kevyn Richmond)
in a scene from the Paper Boys web series

Paper Boys does a very good job of contrasting gay and straight sensibilities. One situation which I thought was handled particularly well was the development in which Daren (a computer programmer "bro" who works for Microsoft) confesses to Cole that he never really asked Rebecca to marry him, but just kind of went along with the idea because he didn't know how to say he wasn't ready to get married. As an impending engagement party (for which both sets of parents have flown into town) draws near, Daren is proving to be a gutless wonder who keeps procrastinating and asking Cole to break the news to Rebecca.

Left alone with some champagne, Cole gets drunk enough to do the dirty deed (even though he doesn't want to) and instantly becomes the target of Rebecca and Daren's wrath. It's an interesting execution which depicts how even the closest straight friend sometimes regards his gay friend as a "fixer" or "magical queer" who can handle intensely personal responsibilities he is too cowardly to perform himself.

There's a lot to like in this new web series (keep an eye out for the dinosaur) in addition to Kyle Cabral's appealing portrayal of Cole and the original score composed by Derek Zhao and Mitchell Collins. The good news is that Paper Boys has been picked up by dekkoo, which will air future episodes. Follow the Paper Boys Facebook page for future announcements and installments.