Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Parenting Trap

Years ago a popular T-shirt read "Stupid people shouldn't breed." During Pastor Charles L. Worley's ignorant rant to his congregation at Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina, the so-called spiritual leader declared that if gay men were isolated behind an electrified fence they would die out because they would not be able to reproduce.

Apparently, no one has ever explained to this fatuous pulpit bully that most gay children are born to heterosexual parents. Always have been. Always will be.

So perhaps it's time to talk about heterosexuals behaving badly. Whether one wants to focus on horny teenagers who can't be bothered with birth control, pedophilic Catholic bishops who condemn contraception, or misguided couples who think that having a child might be their last chance to save a failing marriage, becoming a parent is a life-long responsibility.

Just because two people have the physical ability to make a baby does not mean they are qualified to be parents.

When President Obama recently announced his support for same-sex marriage, Americans were treated to the usual sad and sorry spectacle of a smug Tony Perkins regurgitating his rancid talking points about how children need to grow up with a mother and a father. What the public never hears Tony Perkins talk about is why so many children are waiting and hoping to be adopted.
  • Tony Perkins doesn't like to talk about heterosexual mothers whose religious families force them to give up their illegitimate infants for adoption.
  • Tony Perkins doesn't like to talk about heterosexual fathers who abandon the responsibility of raising a child.
  • Tony Perkins doesn't like to talk about heterosexuals who leave their newborn infants in toilet stalls, dumpsters, or drop them off at an emergency room.
  • Tony Perkins doesn't like to talk about heterosexuals who give up on children who were born with HIV or physical disabilities.
  • Tony Perkins doesn't like to talk about heterosexuals who pass their drug and alcohol dependencies on to their babies.
  • Tony Perkins doesn't like to talk about heterosexuals who ostracize their children and kick them out of their homes after discovering that their child is gay.
  • Tony Perkins doesn't like to talk about heterosexual parents who physically and sexually abuse their children.
Maybe it's time someone forced Tony Perkins to start talking about these issues. Or why the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Family Research Council (of which Perkins is President) as a hate group, charging that Perkins and the FRC have "pushed false accusations linking gay men to pedophilia."

Christians bearing false witness! Who knew?

It's no secret that many LGBT people (myself included) have absolutely no desire to become parents. But for those who do, the adoption process has sometimes led some of them to become those rare heroes who would adopt a child born with HIV or a physical deformity (the orphans no one wanted).

In a heart-rending scene from Elliot Loves, a single mother screams at her nine-year-old son "Don't you get it? You were an accident. I didn't want you!"  Her boy, not knowing any better, looks up with tears in his eyes and asks "Mom, you don't love me?"

A scene from Us. A Family Album

In a simple, beautiful short film by Natalia Babinski (based on a story by Heather Hollingsworth), the audience watches a collage of family photos mixed in with home movies documenting the growth of two children. Throughout Us. A Family Album (which was shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival and will also be screened during the upcoming Frameline 36 Film Festival), a woman's voice keeps urging Alex to move the camera or change the angle of the shot.  As the production notes state:
"Since their invention, amateur cameras have been used to document family life. In the shaky footage of candle-blowing, lawn-watering, a new car, or a family vacation, we rediscover our lives, reach new conclusions about the way we live, and glimpse what is most intangible: time. In Us. A Family Album, we reexamine those familiar images to tell a story that proves that all family and all love is equal."
A proud moment from Us. A Family Album

Us. A Family Album is deceptively familiar, which is why it's so easy for an audience to assume that Alex is the children's father. However, at the end, the audience discovers that Alex is a lesbian and the children's parents are a same-sex couple.

With science (yes, SCIENCE!) making it possible for gay couples to make use of in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, a brave new world of family planning is starting to emerge. In her recent interview with Neil Patrick Harris and his partner, David Burtka, Oprah Winfrey finally understood one of the biggest motivating factors for gay couples to adopt children.

* * * * * * * * *
In 2010, one of the most popular shorts at the Frameline 34 Film Festival put a comic spin on what happens when a straight woman whose biological clock is loudly ticking convinces her best gay friend from college days to help her make a baby. The big question on everyone's mind was whether Jonathan Lisecki would be able to transform a tightly-written 12-minute short into a 90-minute feature film.

Soon to be screened at the Frameline 36 Film Festival, the full-term Gayby is a delightful new addition with no noticeable birth defects. Now in her thirties, Jenn (Jenn Harris) really wants to have a baby. A healthy woman who teaches Bikram yoga for a living, she turns to her best friend from college, Matt (Matthew Wilkas), to be her sperm donor. However, after considering the various options (Jenn doesn't even own a turkey baster), they decide to make a baby the old fashioned way.

Jenn (Jenn Harris) and Matt (Matthew Wilkas) try to make a baby

Matt has a never-ending supply of dishy advice from his close friend Nelson (Lisecki), who trusts in the magical powers of his dead cat's ashes. Nelson has also taken on a new identity as a feminine bear. As soon as Matt commits to trying to make a baby with Jenn (who is staying over at Matt's while her apartment is being painted), complications ensue.

Matt (Matthew Wilkas) and Nelson (Jonathan Lisecki)

Matt (who lives in the apartment above his comic book store and is still trying to get over his ex-boyfriend) has been single for a while and is convinced that, as a man, he can stick his dick in anything. When Jenn has trouble getting pregnant, she turns to Ushma (Sarita Choudhury), an herbal counselor who gives her a special tea to spike her libido.

Soon Jenn is screwing Louis (Louis Cancelmi), the man she hired to paint her apartment. Louis is also her boss's brother.

After briefly meeting a string of horny Internet dates, Matt realizes he is not all that eager to have sex with another man without some kind of emotional investment in the event. While working in his comic book store, he gets cruised by Scott (Mike Doyle), a handsome young father who has come in to buy his son, Parker, a birthday present.

Scott (Mike Doyle) and Matt (Matthew Wilkas)

One night, Matt and Jenn's dates (Charlie Barnett and DulĂ© Hill) arrive at the same time at Matt's apartment. Meanwhile, Jenn's gossipy gay co-worker, Jamie (Jack Ferver), has spilled the beans that Jenn fucked their boss's brother.

After the baby is born, Jenn ends up with Neil (Adam Driver), one of Matt's geeky employees. True to form, Nelson ends up being a combination fairy god-bear and babysitter.

Lisecki's film is filled with easy laughs and bitchy repartee. The two leads are sympathetic, charming actors who easily win over the audience. Jack Ferver and Jonathan Lisecki steal every one of their scenes with the same kind of mischievous energy enjoyed by Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally on Will & Grace. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Whereas Gayby focuses on a woman who desperately wants to get pregnant, Petunia features a pregnant young wife who has absolutely no desire to bear children. Written and directed by Ash Christian (Fat Girls, Magnus), there's a great deal about Petunia that feels like a young filmmaker's homage to Woody Allen. In a way, I'm surprised Christian didn't just go for it and name this black comedy about dysfunctional New Yorkers Michael and His Brothers.

Poster art for Petunia

As the film begins, the audience meets Michael Petunia (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and his sarcastic new bride, Vivian (Thora Birch). Michael's head is filled with all kinds of what-if fantasies and a desire to explore the world. While not a stereotypical Debby Downer, Vivian could drain the life out of any party. She's already screwed Michael's younger brother Adrian (Jimmy Heck) who, as a confirmed sex addict, likes to paint images of female genitalia he has known and loved. Needless to say, Adrian's most recent paintings were all inspired by Vivian.

Then there is Michael's youngest brother, Charlie (Tobias Segal), a nerdy intellectual who is less than thrilled to inherit Adrian's collection of cunt paintings ("cunt kunst"?) while Michael and Vivian visit Adrian. Charlie may be a romantic dreamer, but he's somehow managed to catch the eye of fellow employee George McDougal (Michael Urie).

Charlie (Tobias Segal) and George (Michael Urie)
sit on the front steps of their building

The mother of the three Petunia boys, Felicia (Christine Lahti), is a psychologist with a lot of repressed anger who is stuck in a loveless marriage to another psychologist (David Rasche).  Her professional training doesn't stop Felicia from inviting George over to tea and trying to goad him into anally raping her gay son, Charlie.

There's just one problem: George is married to Robin (Brittany Snow), a health freak who, because she is terrified of carbs, spends much of her time running and working out.

No trailer has been posted yet for Petunia (which is scheduled for release next winter), but some scenes from the film can be seen in the early part of this interview with two of Petunia's producers.

By the end of Petunia, dramatic changes have occurred in the lives of its principal characters:
  • Vivian has given birth and left Michael.
  • Michael and Robin are now a couple and she's consuming carbs like crazy.
  • Adrian has a new girlfriend named Lynn (Kathy Searle) and is painting women's faces instead of their cunts.
  • George and Charlie have become a same- sex couple who are raising Michael and Vivian's baby.
  • Felicia and Percy have moved all of their son Adrian's cunt paintings into their bedroom and are enjoying a healthy sex life again.
While Ash Christian still needs to tighten up some scenes, Petunia shows great potential to entertain and offend.

* * * * * * * * *
If there is one area of grave concern for any parent, it is the thought that their child is vulnerable to attack. It doesn't matter whether the attack comes in the form of a teacher's criticism or a fight with a classroom bully, a parent's natural instinct is to come to a child's defense.

Annette (Rachel Harker) and Veronica (Stacy Ross) are
two mothers whose sons have gotten into a playground fight in
God of Carnage (Photo by: Ed Smith)

But what happens when the child of your dreams -- the apple of your eye -- starts acting like a belligerent little bastard? In her 2006 play, God of Carnage, playwright Yasmina Reza created a simple showdown between two sets of privileged parents whose sons came to blows in a schoolyard fracas.

The fact that Benjamin has knocked out two of Henry's teeth is far more distressing to Henry's mother, Veronica (Stacy Ross), than it is to his father, Michael (Remi Sandri). Michael owns a retail business that sells hardware while his wife is a cultural anthropologist who has published several books about Africa.

While Veronica is deeply concerned about the social implications of Benjamin's behavior and Henry's reluctance to identify the boy who hit him, when Michael learns that Henry has refused to let Benjamin join his gang, he's thrilled to learn that his son even has a gang.

Benjamin's parents are a bit more distant in their approach to the situation. Annette (Rachel Harker) is a financial manager who often feels that her attorney husband, Alan (Warren David Keith), is useless when it comes to dealing with family issues. Alan is always on his cell phone, loudly barking out orders to his staff and clients when he should be paying attention to the other people in the room.

Warren David Keith and Rachel Harker
in God of Carnage (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Although I doubt it was planned this way, Marin Theatre Company's production of Reza's play (using a unit set designed by Nina Ball with sound design by Cliff Carruthers) provided a fascinating contrast with a recent staging in the South Bay. Whereas San Jose Rep's production approached Reza's play as a broad farce in which the four adults devolve from their professional shells until they are acting like primates in a zoo, under Ryan Rilette's direction, MTC's production was a much more staid affair. What should have been an eruption felt more like a polite squirt.

In an interview prior to the London premiere of God of Carnage, Reza noted that:
"My plays have always been described as comedy, but I think they're tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it's a new genre. A very profound play may seem very light. The way people laugh changes the way you see a play. "
To me, the difference was obvious. The San Jose production (which accelerated faster and more forcefully from a polite comedy of manners to an intensely physical farce) drew sustained guffaws and occasional belly laughs from its audience. By comparison, Rilette's production seemed almost anemic, missing quite a few comic opportunities despite an ensemble of skilled actors.

What I find remarkably consistent about Reza's play is that no one has any problem detesting the character of Alan (a corporate attorney representing a pharmaceutical client whose drug may be harming senior citizens). In the six years since God of Carnage had its world premiere in Paris, people shouting into their cell phones has become an uglier -- and much more prevalent -- fact of life.

Stacy Ross and Remi Sandri in God of Carnage (Photo by: Ed Smith)

If you're looking for a smart comedy about the perils of parenting, Reza's play can be a 90-minute tonic. I found myself most intrigued by Warren David Keith's protrayal of Alan as an attorney whose cluelessness and insensitivity toward his wife seemed more careless in this production than condescending. God of Carnage continues at Marin Theatre Company through June 24 (click here to order tickets).

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