Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gays Of Our Lives

The last six weeks of the year are notorious for adding emotional stress to many lives. Between strained family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and unrelenting media pressure to buy all kinds of crap one may not need (or be able to afford), keeping up appearances exacts a heavy toll on one's wallet and soul.

This is also a time when more people are vulnerable to suicidal ideation, domestic violence, and increased substance abuse. While some people fantasize about their New Year's resolutions, others wonder if they can find the strength to break free from abusive and/or codependent relationships.

For every listicle devoted to the ten best movies, moments, memes, or mugshots, there are equally cynical pieces of advice. Following a tense and bitter election, many people are struggling to put on a happy face as they watch the parade of incompetent political appointments being made by President-elect Fuckface von Clownstick. When it comes to handy post-apocalyptic tips for homemakers, Lewis Dartnell's recent article on the BBC's website entitled How To Cope With The End of the World is a must-read survivor's manual that picks up where Martha Stewart left off.

Different personalities cope with disaster in different ways. Some people panic and need to be calmed down; others become paralyzed with fear and need to be coaxed out of their terror. As I learned during the years I spent working at a YMCA summer camp, there is a third type of personality which organizes people, directs traffic, and gives individuals small, easily achievable tasks which they can perform.

Words of wisdom can come from the most unlikely sources. During one of my most dispiriting periods, a gym buddy told me not to worry, reassuring me that when one door closes another will open. As trite as that might sound, his words helped me to be alert for an opportunity that might not be clearly visible at the moment, but that might point to a forgotten door from my past that I could walk through. When I recognized that opening, not only did it return me to the field of medical transcription, it helped me work my way through $70,000 in credit card debt, start writing a professional column for a trade publication, and publish an online manual entitled Dictation Therapy for Doctors.

One of my favorite pieces of advice is Tevye's warning that "Good news will wait and bad news will refuse to leave." A friend from Australia recently posted this meme on his Facebook page.

Coping with bad news isn't always easy. Nor is it necessarily a romp and a frolic. But if a person can avoid wallowing in self pity, there are helping hands that might reach out to help someone get back up on their feet and, if they are lucky, devote some time to meditation and introspection.

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When things go wrong, it's tempting to look for people to blame for one's misfortune. During its recent presentation of six short plays under the umbrella title of "Left Coast News," San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company staged Tommy Jamerson's rollicking catfight entitled Rags to Bitches. Having previously written such children's plays as The Big Bad Bullysaurus, Charlie the No-Good, Really-Rotten, Cheat-a-saurus Rex, Princess Pigface, and From Hair to Eternity: The Un-be-weave-able Adventures of Rapunzel, Jamerson was ready to tackle bigger game.

Directed by Chris Maltby, this comic playlet takes place in a slovenly backstage dressing room as two fierce and furious egos hope to make "herstory" at the U.S. Open Legs Drag Pageant.
  • Poppy (Neil Higgins) is the older, fleshier contestant -- someone who has been around the block, demands respect from the younger talent nipping at her heels, and is more than ready to put Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and all those old school bitches back in the chorus where they belong. Imagine the bastard love child of Justin Sayre and Tallulah Bankhead.
  • Dynasty (Connor Fatch) is a more modern creature, a skinny contestant whose ensemble and attitude speak to a younger generation that has grown up watching RuPaul's drag competitions on television in the comfort of their own homes.
Dynasty (Connor Fatch) and Poppy (Neil Higgins) intimidate Eugene
(Sabrina De Mio) in Rags to Bitches (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Caught between the two is Eugene (Sabrina De Mio), the starry-eyed stagehand who is trying to resolve a technical glitch while Poppy and Dynasty bare their fangs, trade insults, and reveal the evil ways each has tried to sabotage the other's costume in order to clinch the title. However, once Eugene's crisis is resolved, it's time to kiss and make up before heading onstage.

Rags to Bitches proved to be an acid-tinged showdown that allowed Higgins and Fatch to throw caution to the wind and have themselves a grand old time as two mean girls who know how to conserve their energy until showtime.

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One of the benefits of living in a city that is home to several gay theatre companies is that audiences get used to seeing plays in which gay characters deal with the same kinds of shit happening in their daily lives as straight characters. It's not necessary for a protagonist to be a suicidal, self-loathing closet case or a gay man dying of HIV/AIDS.

Unlike some gay playwrights from previous generations (Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee), today's LGBT dramatists find plenty of material with which to create complex, interesting characters forced to cope with challenges that range from outlandish to overwhelming. From Charles Busch, John Fisher, Charles Ludlam, and Harvey Fierstein to Paul Rudnick, JC Lee, and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, their work has been embraced by a wide range of audiences who laugh and cry at the humanity they've been able to put onstage. As Stephen Karam (whose play, The Humans, won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play) explains:
"I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of brave writers who blazed a trail, like Larry KramerTerrence McNally, Tony Kushner, and Craig Lucas. Three Sisters is one of my favorite plays, but I have never once read it and thought, you know, if these were three lesbians, I’d have more of an 'in' to their thinking and be sucked into the story. If I write a story with predominantly gay men, well, we’ve been connecting to stories with straight people for a long time. I don’t think of plays with straight people as heterosexual plays. I don’t walk away from Death of a Salesman thinking of it as a straight play."
"I just think the reality of our generation is that we all know someone who is 'post-gay,' who came out by just bringing their boyfriends home in middle school. I’m in my early thirties, and I know there are people who came out at 18, 19, 20. It’s a conscious choice to not shy away from what I know. It’s also not to think about it too much. There are organizations like Exodus, but we’ve come so far that we have kids who come out and it’s a non-issue."
Joseph (Eric Kerr) is a former college athlete struggling with
an undiagnosed illness in Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the regional premiere of Karam's exquisitely-written drama entitled Sons of the Prophet. Originally commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the work premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston in the spring of 2011 and was a finalist in the 2012 competition for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Although the story is filled with physical and emotional pain, it glows with the playwright's keen sense of humor and generous compassion. Unlike many other plays, Karam's script leaves the audience with a rare sense of emotional fulfillment, as if witnessing others struggling to cope with personal setbacks has helped them to put their own suffering in perspective.

Touchingly directed by Ben Randle on a unit set designed by Devin Kasper( with costumes by Jorge R. Hernandez and lighting by Victoria Herbert), Karam's play begins as the audience sees the silhouette of a male deer caught in the headlights of an approaching car. There is the sound of a crash before the lights come up in the office of Gloria (Cheryl Smith), a self-absorbed and newly widowed book packager who has returned to her late husband's home town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania following a spectacular fall from grace under the intense spotlight of New York's publishing industry.

Gloria's new assistant, Joseph Douaihy (Eric Kerr), is struggling to get her to sign off on his healthcare insurance even though he is only working for her on a part-time basis. A former competitive runner, at 29 he is a shadow of his college self who is now forced to wear braces in order to cope with the pain radiating from his knees (perhaps due to a hypoplastic femoral trochlea).

As Joseph reminds his boss that he needs to leave the office early so he can visit his father (who was recently hospitalized following an automobile accident), Gloria is much more interested in her discovery that Joseph's family is distantly related to the beloved Lebanese-American writer, Khalil Ghibran. A woman with precious little talent of her own, she is eagerly visualizing how Joseph's ethnic roots and family heritage could lead to a lucrative deal for a potential bestseller that could get her back into publishing circles (Gloria was shunned after publishing a fraudulent memoir whose author claimed to have met his wife while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp).

Gloria is also the kind of New Yorker who can talk for hours without listening to what anyone else has to say. Although she is quick to interrupt Joseph in mid-sentence, as soon as he starts to bore her with the painful details of his life, she reaches for her smartphone and pretends to be taking a very important call (even though he just told her that the phone's battery is dead).

Gloria (Cheryl Smith) is a woman who wallows in
self-pity in Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Two weeks later, the Douaihy family is thrown into chaos after Joseph's father succumbs to a heart attack. Because their mother died several years ago of cancer, Joseph and his 18-year-old brother, Charles (Stephen Kanaski), must cope with the realization that they are now adult orphans. Meanwhile, their uncle Bill (Donald Currie), a devout curmudgeon in failing health who insists that the family continue to worship Saint Rafqa, insists on moving in with his nephews so that he can look after them when, in truth, he's the one who needs looking after.

One of the issues the family must deal with is the fate of Vin (Marcus Drew Steele), the local football hero who, on a dare, placed the fake stag that is the team mascot for "The Mighty Bucks" on the highway as a prank. A talented African American athlete who grew up in foster care, Vin is genuinely remorseful about the results of his prank. He is also terrified by the possibility of losing his football scholarship if he is benched as a result of Mr. Douaihy's death.

The obvious question is whether the Douaihys can bring themselves to forgive Vin for his fatal prank. Joseph is adamant about not wanting to meet him. Uncle Bill is eager to confront the young man and make sure he understands the depth and ramifications of the family's loss. To their surprise, Charles happily announces that he's already been chatting with Vin online and thinks they should meet him.

Marcus Drew Steele, Eric Kerr, Donald Currie, and Stephen Kanaski
in a scene from Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Of the three surviving Douaihys, Charles is easily the most interesting. Born deaf in one ear as a result of a birth defect, he underwent plastic surgery which made his ear appear normal. Unlike his older brother (whom he accuses of being cheap and dressing like a lesbian lumberjack), Charles has a quick wit, strong social skills, a fashion sense befitting a budding queen, and some cheeky observational skills. A geography nerd who learned how to identify various states and nations by their shapes, he welcomes social challenges with open arms.

After Vin arrives at the Douaihys' home, the confrontation is interrupted when a self-absorbed Gloria (who has no understanding of personal boundaries) enters at a most unfortunate moment. With Joseph simultaneously forced to deal with Gloria's neediness and Bill's bathroom issues, Charles can barely contain his delight when it becomes obvious that he can have Vin all to himself.

As if coping with his deeply needy and narcissistic boss who wants Joseph to consent to a book package about his family history, a sassy young gay brother who is quick to criticize Joseph for his faults, and an incontinent bigoted uncle were not enough, as the new head of the family Joseph must also cope with a doctor who wants him to undergo a spinal tap and a handsome reporter from Harrisburg who has come snooping around for a scoop about the accident which led to the elder Douaihy's death.

Loralee Windsor, JD Scalzo, and Eric Kerr in a
scene from Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

When first Joseph encounters Timothy (JD Scalzo) at the local bus station, the two men strike up a nervous conversation which is easily recognizable to most gay men as a clumsy attempt at cruising. Timothy has traveled the world, can speak some Arabic, and challenges Joseph to think beyond the limited horizons of a fading steel town in the heart of Pennsylvania's rust belt. After an unexpected hookup, Timothy pushes too hard in order to get his story. Joseph retaliates by calling him a closet case with a small dick.

While some people are surprised by Karam's "boldness" in writing a play about a family in which there are two gay brothers, the playwright sees things quite differently.
"I’m a gay writer and I wrote a play with three gay characters in it. If you think that’s a gay play, then there’s a part of me that goes 'Yeah, that’s a gay play.' If people want to call it a gay play, that’s fine. But what I’m excited about is that I don't think you get on the ride with some marketing angle (come to see Sons of the Prophet and you’ll get some lovemaking in a Hampton Inn). That’s not the reason to see this play."
It most certainly is not. The reason to see Sons of the Prophet is that it is a tenderhearted, magnificently written dramedy, beautifully directed by Ben Randle, that can easily stand on its own against numerous classics of the American theatre. Karam's writing is so masterful that, whether listening to Gloria's aggressive interruptions or self-absorbed monologue, the audience can't help but be moved by the sheer vulnerability of Karam's characters. This New Conservatory Theatre Center production features exceptional performances by Cheryl Smith as Gloria, Donald Currie as Uncle Bill, and Stephen Kanaski as Charles. Eric Kerr's Joseph and JD Scalzo's Tim are both struggling with recognizable pressures, while Nancy French has some nice moments as a hospital nurse and the President of the local school board.

Nancy French and Loralee Windsor portray two members of the
local school board in Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Loralee Windsor draws comic gold from her portrayals of the bus station's manager and a school board member who clucks about how Charles has had to deal with being "hearing impaired and gay." Yet, at the end of the play, she makes a glowing appearance as Joseph's elementary school teacher, Mrs. McAndrew, who also attends physical therapy sessions. She lovingly tells her former student that it will help if he thinks of his pain as a kind of quicksand which he must rise above.

Sons of the Prophet is written from the heart with great craft and remarkable levels of compassion. I look forward to an opportunity to see it again soon. Performances continue through December 18 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

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