WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF…?
DADA WOOF PAPA HOT
Storytelling changes to reflect its times. Not just the culture of the times; not just the sensibility of the times; but the way culture and sensibility inform narrative technique and dramaturgical approach. Now that’s quite a mouthful; what exactly does it mean? Well, as El Gallo invited: follow, follow, follow…
Post World War II, especially the decades of the 1950s through the 1970s, social structures were redefining themselves: fights for racial and sexual-orientation equality, to abolish structures that encourage abuse, to provide help for sub-groups heretofore disenfranchised, to recognize certain addictions and mental conditions as diseases, etc.
And what is the first step to any of those things?
And what has historically been among the key components among the earliest exposure, at least in America?
And almost always at first the province of theatre or television; though in the earliest days, some of those breakthrough TV plays—shown as one-off episodes in drama anthologies—were adapted for movies (on rarer occasion the transition went from TV play to stage play).
Now if you look over the roster of the iconic dramas in this arena, you find two kinds:
The first is what I call the One from Column A, One from Column B drama. This is the kind that presents us with a cross-section of a subculture. Its primary purpose is to humanize by way of showing distinct individuals. They may, in the larger scheme of things, be archetypes of real-life, but in dramatic terms, they’re the mold-breakers that introduce the archetype into the storytelling Zeitgeist. In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, every character represented a different faction of what was then the black experience in America. A decade later, in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, each character represented a different-but-standard way of living as a gay man in then-contemporary America. A hallmark of the Column drama is a central event or goal that serves as credible excuse to bring those characters together in one place (in Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, the event is even the point: the deliberation of a jury in a murder trial). The alchemy of cross-section and event makes for characters who are memorable, that most people conversant with popular American dramatic literature can envision in their particulars, just by the mention of their names. You say Mama and Walter Lee, you implicitly say A Raisin in the Sun; you automatically picture the domineering, religious matriarch; the ambitious young man trying to break free of financial and cultural restraints. You say Michael, Emory, Hank, Cowboy, just those first names (there are no last ones) and you instantly flash to Harold’s birthday party in The Boys in the Band. The names themselves are iconic and alone define the archetypes they introduced. And they’re proactive. And how they’ll wind up is not certain.
The second kind of social drama is the case history. In a way, this one is the It Can Happen to Anyone scenario. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re all at random potentially part of the sub-group; but it does mean that we’re all potentially affected by the subgroup, about which more needs to be known in a “clinical” sense. Which is not to say cold, but rather textbook; so that we as a society can help/behave appropriately/humanely and, so educated by watching a case history play out, learn to live together. You remember the characters less than the actors who filled them out. Subsequently, unless you’re a trivia hound, the names Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen probably don’t mean much to you. What about Doug Salter and Gary McClain?
Well, Joe and Kirsten are the eventually married couple at the center of Days of Wine and Roses, JP Miller’s drama about the gradual ravages of alcoholism; Doug and Gary are the closeted gay couple having to deal with Doug, recently divorced from his wife Janet, needing to come out to his 14 year old son, Nick, in That Certain Summer, by Richard Levinson and William Link, the first TV film to deal sympathetically with homosexuality. They have no iconic identification because they are only the personification of a condition or a pathology. You could tell the story of another couple and it would be much the same. These characters aren’t proactive in the same way; and primarily they’re reactive—or at least a reflection of circumstance; and being the embodiment of a case history approach, they are destined to fulfill their profiles. Almost by definition, they cannot traffic in idiosyncrasy.
But as I say, storytelling changes.
The 80s began to shake up everything, and by the 90s they were well-shook. A Raisin in the Sun and The Boys in the Band became period pieces. Glipmses into black and gay life no longer sought to show everything under the umbrella, and gave way to dramas of high idiosyncrasy, such as August Wilson’s America cycle (which continued into the new millennium) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. And for the most part, the case history approach disappeared. With the obliteration of subject-matter taboos came heightened awareness and the impulse to generalize disappeared. (Clearly a look at conservative America indicates that not all problems have been solved—but the artistic impulse had moved on from the goal of simple exposure and transparent object lesson.)
Which brings us to two plays:
First, Would You Still Love Me If… by John Anastasi, which had a very brief frun off-Broadway at Theatre Row. Here’s the boilerplate: Danya and Addison are caring, intelligent people who are also lesbian lovers. They have professional careers, a beautiful home, a baby on the way and a passion and love for each other unmatched by any in history. But someone has a lifelong secret that threatens to destroy all they hold dear, forces them to look at each other in a different light and to answer profound questions of, do we really see each other in a relationship and why do we love who we love?” The secret is Dayna’s and it’s that she’s always felt as if she were a man, and yearns for a gender change.
So we go through the checklist of the secret meeting with the female master surgeon, who is at first unwilling to treat Danya, unsure of her commitment, which leadas to the argument about the nature of readiness and what a patient needs to expect; the eventual confession to Addison and the stages that relationship goes through in terms of shock, denial, bargaining, etc. It was a play in which you could practically smell the research, let alone the cyber-ink of the meticulous point-by-point writing. It was a bizarrely antiquated way to approach a complex subject. (As if to nail home that point, as early as 1975, a breakthrough two-part episode of the TV series Medical Center 9”The Fourth Sex” by Rita Lakin] had already explored the subject in a case history manner, with series hero Dr. Joe Gannon [Chad Everett], the surgeon, being the lens of remarkable compassion, given the era.)
Which brings us to the second play, currently at Playwrights Horizons, Hir by Taylor Mac. Now hir, pronounced “here,” is one of the new transgender pronouns, but language is not the only thing the play turns ion its ear. Here’s the author’s own boilerplate for that one:
“Hir is a play that is equal parts love letter to progressives, comedic sendup of their foibles, and diatribe that ultimately asks them to consider the casualties that are a result of their new world order. The story centers on newly enlightened Paige [Kristine Nielsen], a former housewife, who is determined to forge a deliriously liberated world for her two wayward children: Isaac [Cameron Scoggins], on leave from the Marines under dubious circumstances; and Max [Tom Phalen], tender, jaded, and sculpting a third-sex gender identity for hirself.” Not quite indicated in this description is that Max is only 14; and that Paige’s husband Arnold (Daniel Oreskes) is also present—at first in a dress, clown make-up and multi-color fright wig. Rendered imbecilic after a stroke, he is now the constant target of Paige’s casual disdain, retribution for his having been brutally abusive when he had all his mental faculties.
The author hirself (that’s not a typo or a sly comment) categorizes the play as “Absurd Realism,” which is to say he posits behavior, lifestyle and personalities taken to absurd extremes, but always played for real-world stakes. And under the direction of Niegel Smith, that happens with fantastic and bizarrely believable brio.
For me, the play is a genre-bender and arguably a trail blazer for two reasons two reasons: (1) Given his skewed real/absurd perspective, which could easily have invited dispassionate satire, Taylor Mac still manages to treat all his characters with compassion, even when they behave as if it’s the last thing they deserve—no easy balance to achieve, that. And (2) ze (another transgender pronoun) breaks the mold of the social drama by positing a situation in which transgender awareness info is confined to a small, miraculously comic segment—just enough to clue us in to vocabulary—but otherwise takes the state of being matter-of-factly. In fact, he presents a number of social issues—any one of which could fuel a social drama on its own—matter of factly. One might even argue that he has managed a new world conflation of the One from Column A, One from Column B play with the Case History play in that he has brought together four characters, each of whom has undergone severe transformation in manners mental, metaphysical, spiritual, sexual, biological and chemical; yet each represents a case history that has not yet been absorbed into the zeitgeist, because it’s too volatile to be predictable, and too layered to be entirely familiar, especially in the context of an alchemical mix with the other three unstable elements.
Mac is more interested in the examining the consequences of radical changes to mainstream existence than he is in giving the mainstream an education—and he gives us a situation chock-a-block with paradoxes he doesn’t answer or moralize about, but rather leaves you to ponder. (My “favorite,” if that’s the word, was Paige’s treatment of her husband; is her merciless vengeance not as abusive as his previous violence?)
I’ve been struggling with deciding whether or not I like the play because it’s so unsettling—but I’m not sure that matters. Because it’s unsettling in all the right ways.
Falling somewhere between the two stools is the very well-delivered but low-wattage Dada Woof Papa Hot by Peter Parnell at the Mitzi Newhouse in Lincoln Center. Its subject matter is gay couples who are also parents. While it means to shed light on the mainstreaming of the social phenomenon, it does it via the Column A, Column B approach, though Mr. Parnell approaches it more stealthily. It’s not until the play is well underway that we realize that its characters represent archetypes. In part, this is because the archetypes are new—at least to the extend that pop cultures hasn’t yet quantified them. Two couples who become friends: Couple number one consists of the committed partner who’s also a devoted parent (Patrick Breen); and the one who’s sort-of on board but not so sure what he signed up for is what he signed up for (John Benjamin Hickey). Couple number two consists of the strait-laced conservative who tries to tolerate his partner’s philandering (Stephen Plunkett); and his partner who tries to philander with the uncertain husband in couple number one. (For me, couple number two exist unfavorably-by-comparison in the shadow of Hank and Larry in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band; even though offstage children are involved, the parents cover no new sociological ground, their being uncloseted making no perceptible difference in the relationship dynamic or what the audience takeaway about it might be.)
The cast—which also includes John Pankow, Kellie Overbey and Tammy Blanchard dealing with similar issues of wanderlust and fidelity—is a happy confluence of familiar, welcome New York players, all doing a fine job under the yeoman direction of Scott Ellis. But it all seems very mild, and I think the reason why is because there seems little urgency to it. I’ll acknowledge some community value in presenting a play in which gay parents are at last an unremarkable, matter-of-fact reality in urban society—but within that normalization hides the play’s curse. Because—as the play itself takes pains to dramatize via the straight characters—their long-term relationship problems (especially now that gay marriage is legal and now that closeted life, at least in a city like New York, where the play is set, is a choice and only rarely an obligation) are just like everyone else’s. And just like everyone else only attains urgency if that humanity-in-common is being repressed.
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