Thursday, November 26, 2009

Double Bubble, Toil and Trouble

"Do something special,
Anything that's special
Do something special because...
You're more than just a mimic
When you've got a gimmick."
The above lyric was written by Stephen Sondheim in 1959 for the three tired strippers in Gypsy: A Musical Fable. For playwrights and screenwriters, a solid gimmick is what can make or break their plot.
  • William Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, shows what happens when a magical potion makes someone fall in love with the first person they see.
  • In 1961's hit musical, Carnival!, a naive country girl who believes that the puppets she meets in a carnival are real does not understand that a man is manipulating the puppets -- as well as her emotions.
  • In 1963's She Loves Me, two co-workers who despise each other don't realize that they have secretly been exchanging love letters through the mail.
  • In 1965, Peter Shaffer's one-act play, Black Comedy, depicted what happens when the lights go out during an electrical failure in London. The production's gimmick was its reversed lighting scheme. It began in total darkness (for the audience) with disembodied voices carrying on a fairly uninteresting conversation. When the electricity failed, the stage lights came up so that the audience could watch the actors groping their way around the multi-level set.
  • Frederick Knott's 1966 thriller, Wait Until Dark, was written about a blind woman who was being terrorized by an intruder. The gimmick was simple: By turning off the lights in her apartment, the victim was able to gain the upper hand in her fight to survive.
  • Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1979 musical hit, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, focused on the unexpected success of Mrs. Lovett's pie shop once she and her accomplice embarked on a path of murdering innocent people and grinding up their bodies for the stuffing in her meat pies.
In each of these plays, the audience knows a secret that a key character does not. Whether applied to stage or screen, that particular gimmick can lead to three kinds of comedy:
  • In the lowest kind of farce, at least one character must be totally amoral (a person for whom the end always justifies the means).
  • While a mistaken identity or love potion can cause romantic confusion in a mid-level farce, chances are there will be a happy (and perhaps sickeningly sweet) ending.
  • In the highest level of farce, audiences may be confronted with an extremely intricate puzzle, some tough intellectual challenges, and need a greater understanding of numerous obscure references. "Happily ever after" is, by no means, a guaranteed ending.
By sheer coincidence, I had a chance to experience three romantic farces during the past week (one at each level on the comic ladder of morality, writing, and wit). Each comedy aimed for a specific audience and succeeded on its own terms. Each, however, was accompanied by some serious emotional baggage.

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After the initial cluster of AIDS dramas, gay-themed entertainment took a sharp turn toward the mainstream with movies aimed at an emerging market of younger LGBT people whose lives revolve around their cell phones, their music and, of course, sex. No longer were plots focused on the angst of coming to terms with one's sexual orientation. After the intensity of Queer As Folk and Six Feet Under, people wanted to party and have some fun.

The results vary widely. Despite the hilarity of Queer Duck, the freshness of Colma: The Musical, the good-natured spirit of Outing Riley, and the biting wit of Merci Docteur Rey, there have also been abysmal misfires like Adam & Steve, Boat Trip, Bam Bam and Celeste, A Four Letter Word, and Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild. Some of these films start off on the LGBT film festival circuit, others go straight to DVD (where they appeal to a strong mail-order market of young gay men and aging chickenhawks).

Fans of Q. Allan Brocka look to his catalog of gay-themed films with a combination of admiration for his biting wit and a reluctance to admit that they laughed at many of his tackier jokes. Brocka made a big splash in 2004 with Eating Out. The sequel, Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds, proved to be less impressive.

In 2006, Brocka delivered the semi-serious Boy Culture (an adaptation of Matthew Rettenmund's novel), and a pilot for The Big Gay Sketch Show. He contributed to the story line for 2008's Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom and created and wrote 14 episodes of the popular stop-motion animated sitcom on Logo, Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All The World.

When Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat started to make the rounds at gay film festivals, the reaction varied from hysterical laughter to abject scorn. However, like many new comedies aimed at the young LGBT audience, this is fairly formulaic writing that involves:
  • A cute male twink with low self esteem who yearns for true love.
  • A hunk who either thinks he is straight or looks too good to be true.
  • An obnoxious fag hag.
  • People getting way too drunk for their own good.
  • Plenty of mixed messages, mistaken identities, and sex jokes.
  • One or more sympathetic gay elders.
While Brocka apparently supplied the characters for this film, the screenplay was written by his frequent collaborator, Phillip J. Bartell. As directed by Glenn Gaylord, the plot involves the following characters:
  • Tiffani von der Sloot (Rebekah Kochan) is a bitchy fag hag who runs a nail salon where where she constantly threatens to report her two Asian employees, Pam (Sumalee Montano) and Candy (Cristina Balmores) to the Department of Immigration. As the film opens, Tiffani is at a funeral parlor, where she is lying in an open display coffin while humping hunky priest Ernesto (Maximiliano Torandell). Once they have finished, she straightens herself up so she can sing at the memorial service for one of her friends, a young man who died in an automobile accident while giving his lover a blowjob.
  • Ryan (Michael E.R. Walker) is Tiffani's ex-boyfriend, a straight male stripper with a very hot body who grew weary of Tiffani's nasty streak and moved out of town.
  • Helen (Mink Stole) is the deceased gay man's mother. Helen's gay nephew, Casey, has recently rented an apartment from her.
  • Casey (Daniel Skelton) is a dewey-eyed young twink who falls head over heels for Zack, the gorgeous hunk he meets at a local gay community center where Tiffani has volunteered him to be auctioned off at a fundraiser.
  • Zack (Chris Salvatore) is the sensitive stud with a heart of gold, who has been stuck in a relationship with Lionel, a narcissistic and abusive gay jock.
  • Lionel (John Stallings) is Zack's athletic asshole of a boyfriend. After being dumped by Zack, he promptly seduces Casey (and secretly films the two of them having sex).
  • Tandy (Julia Cho) is Zack's devoted fag hag, who takes an instant dislike to Tiffani's meddling.
  • Harry (Leslie Jordan) is an elderly, good-hearted volunteer at the local gay community center.

When Casey meets Zack, he becomes so tongue-tied and insecure that Tiffani pushes him into creating a fake profile on the Internet. One look at Casey's scrawny body is all Tiffani needs to substitute a very suggestive picture of her ex-boyfriend, Ryan. When Zack sees "Ryan's" picture online and sends him an instant message, Casey responds with his true feelings.

Long story short: Casey and Zack think they're made for each other, but Zack is imagining that Casey looks like Ryan. When Ryan returns to town and bumps into Zack, he gets invited over to Zack's house for dinner. When Zack discovers that Casey lied on his profile and substituted Ryan's picture, he wants nothing to do with either one of them.

After realizing that Casey and Zack are indeed made for each other, Tiffani and Ryan have to figure out a way to get the two men back together. While there are some good moments of farce, Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat specializes in the kind of "truly tasteless" comedy that is lewd, crude, and unbelievably rude.

Older gays may be turned off by the script's completely lack of decency or depth, but younger gays who are easily titillated by gossip, superficiality, and shallow relationships, will probably enjoy it immensely. As the trailer indicates, subtlety won't be found anywhere on the menu for Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat:

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While some critics trashed Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat, it is a well-funded, well-focused, and well-filmed farce that moves at a fairly rapid clip and knows where it's going. Even if the humor seems somewhat tacky and juvenile, its editing is solid, its comic moments are neatly set up, and no one on the creative team has any delusions about creating "high art." It is an extremely commercial product.

Far less raunchy and, noticeably less well crafted, Be Mine is a romantic comedy that focuses on a shy gay college student who never kissed another man. In addition to the protagonist as the twink/insecure mess, add in a screaming black queen, a scene in a hot tub, and voila!

Another gay romantic comedy for the bubblegum and iPod generation.

Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, Be Mine often makes one think of a soufflé that didn't quite rise the way the recipe suggested. Whereas Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat left no insult unearned, Be Mine lives no cliché of cuteness unturned. Nor is it helped by the fact that the director's confusing use of flashbacks is an unnecessary plot device.

Mayson (Dan Selon) is the kind of shy gay man whose lack of self esteem and social skills keep him from meeting guys. Half as old as The 40 Year Old Virgin, he has made it to his senior year in college without ever having kissed another man. His best friend and devoted fag hag, Robyn (Kendra Thomas), notices Mayson eying a hunk in the school library and decides to give her friend an extra push.

When the two head to a local coffee shop, Mayson (who has a passion for chocolate scones) is dismayed to learn that the last chocolate scone has just been sold. Guess who bought it! None other than Reiley the hunk (Jared Welch) who, though charming, has a propensity for telling little white lies.

Because it's Valentine's Day and Mayson has no one to kiss, Robyn invites him to a party being thrown by their mutual friend Eric (Eric Taylor), a screaming black queen who mysteriously lives in a huge house in Long Beach and whose party seems to include mostly white people and, of course, a friend bearing gifts of marijuana.

Who should magically show up at Eric's party but Reiley! And Mayson!

Directed by Dave Padilla, Be Mine proves to be a minor piece of pretty vapid fluff. The principals all end up in the hot tub at Eric's party while rumor spreads like wildfire that Reiley knocked up (and then dumped) his girlfriend. Mayson gets much too drunk and passes out, only to find that his Prince Charming spent the night in the same bed with him. And guess what! Reiley fed him some pieces of the last chocolate scone to soak up the alcohol so Mayson won't have such a terrible hangover.

As with Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat, there's plenty of eye candy and bitchy dialogue, but not too much depth. This is probably a good movie for a closeted young man or someone who didn't renew his subscription to Tiger Beat Magazine and is looking for true love. Here's the trailer:

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Moving much further up the ladder of farce, we arrive at David Greenspan's intricately plotted She Stoops To Comedy, which is currently receiving its West Coast premiere at SFPlayhouse. Audiences with a strong sense of theatre history will get much more out of this play than anyone who wanders in off the street.

The title refers to Oliver Goldsmith's comedy, She Stoops To Conquer, which was first performed in 1773. Elements of the plot mirror Shakespeare's As You Like It and the film of The Guardsman (which was based on a play by Ferenc Molnar). With references to the legendary husband-wife theatrical duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the romantic powers of the Forest of Arden, Charles Ludlam's brilliant The Mystery of Irma Vep, and some juicy character digs that find double meaning in the field of paleontology, Greenspan's farce presents audiences with the depth of character one expects from Tony Kushner, the enigmatic questions raised by Edward Albee, the fierce intellect of Tom Stoppard, and the cattiness of a life spent backstage in a sea of neuroses.

"I'm mimicking the old Elizabethan convention in which a young actor would play Rosalind, who then disguises herself as a man, so in the character's disguise, the actor would look more like himself,'' the playwright once explained to The New York Times. As SFPlayhouse's artistic director, Bill English, notes:
"Exploring the elusive nature of identity, David Greenspan goes the Elizabethan device of cross-gender casting one further to explore the contemporary playing field of gender. She Stoops to Comedy riffs eloquently on the challenge of knowing one's self, twisting theatrical form as if to ask 'What is life? What is identity? What is reality? What is man? What is woman? Who in their right mind knows?' And yet, in the midst of this existential uncertain, there is love, tenderness, and beauty."
Defty directed by Mark Rucker, the plot revolves around the following characters:
  • Alexandra Page (Liam Vincent) is a lesbian actress who fears that her lover, Sally Clawson (also an actress) is being unfaithful. Upon hearing that a famed Canadian actor has had to leave the cast of a regional production of As You Like It, Alexandra gets up in male drag and auditions for the role of Orlando.
  • Kay Fein (Amy Resnick) is a close friend of Alexandra's who has built careers as both a paleontologist and a theatrical lighting designer.
Liam Vincent and Amy Resnick (Photo by: Matthew Vuolo)
  • Sally Clawson (Alison Rose) is Alexandra's lover, who is currently rehearsing the role of Rosalind in a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It.
  • Hal Stewart (Cole Alexander Smith) is a film director who has never really worked in theatre but has agreed to direct a production of As You Like It for a small community theatre owned by an old friend.
  • Eve Addaman (Carly Cioffi) is Hal's girlfriend and assistant. A former dancer, she knows much more about working on the stage than Hal could ever hope to learn.
  • Jayne Summerhouse (Amy Resnick) is a lesbian actress who has always had a crush on Sally.
  • Simon Lanquish (Scott Capurro) is a close friend of Jayne Summerhouse and an extremely lonely, middle-aged gay man.
Liam Vincent and Scott Capurro (Photo by: Matthew Vuolo)

If paranoia and schizophrenia whet your whistle, this is the play for you! Between the playwright's constantly shifting reference points and his blunt use of letting his characters point out impending plot devices to the audience ("It has to be an efficiency apartment so that there can be a garbage disposal in the last scene"), there is more than enough to keep one's mind occupied.

Not only does Liam Vincent appear before the audience as a male, he plays a lesbian (Alexandra) who must dress up as a male to perform as Orlando. Amy Resnick does double duty as two lesbians -- Kay Fein and Jayne Summerhouse -- who wonder if they have ever been in a scene together. Late in the play, when Fein and Summerhouse (who were once lovers) get into an argument, Resnick's dexterity in jumping back and forth between the two characters reminds one of Faye Dunaway's famous line from Roman Polanski's 1974 film, Chinatown: "She's my sister. She's my daughter. She's my sister and my daughter!"

Double entendres run rampant through Greenspan's script (there is no way of knowing whether the character Jayne Summerhouse is a pun on the term "summer house" or a coy reference to actress Jane Summerhays). While much of the plot's focus is on Alexandra's exploits while disguised as "Harry/Hairy," the highlight of the evening is a magnificently crafted drunken monologue for Simon Lanquish who, in examining the various permutations of what it means to be a middle aged faggot, repeatedly asks "Do we really need a play about that gay man?"

Liam Vincent, Scott Capurro, Sally Clawson
(Photo by: Matthew Vuolo)

As directed by Mark Rucker, Scott Capurro (who is noted for the dripping sarcasm of his stand-up comedy) nails this monologue with a sadly besotted sense of poetry and timing that is heartbreaking. Greenspan's play is filled with oddities, not the least of which is that the playwright has given two secondary characters the best monologues of the evening.

While She Stoops To Comedy has many solid laughs, the intellectual challenges it poses with regard to love, fidelity, gender perception (and just how much you really know about your partner) will haunt you long after you leave the theatre. The production runs through January 8th. You can purchase tickets here.

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