There was a time when one could find challenging and touching work off-Broadway. I am sorry to report that time is passing. After seeing two celebrated off-Broadway plays, I am convinced that theater is morphing into propaganda, a tiresome Johnny One Note. Where universal human experience was once explored, the new off-Broadway prefers to reflect and support a tiny segment of the population, a particular lifestyle, really.
For months the New York Times has trumpeted the virtues of As Bees In Honey Drown. The plot is simple enough: A young homosexual author falls head over heels for a woman who is, in his words, “a mixture of every woman I’ve ever loved in a movie.” The woman is Alexa Vere De Vere. Like her namesake Edward De Vere (aka Shakespeare), Alexa is not who she purports to be. In reality she is a two-bit con artist who cozies up to successful young talent and makes off with their money. Using the “honey” of success—empty flatteries and promises of wealth—Vere De Vere entraps her young victims, and vanishes without a trace.
Shielded behind black bangs, punctuating each line with the ferocity of a Selectric typewriter, J. Smith-Cameron (recently released from the cast) turns in a hollow, campy performance with all the depth of a Saturday Night Live sketch. She is a cross between a female impersonator doing Bette Davis and a chirpy Rosalind Russell on speed. Her cohorts support her in the superficiality: The whole production seems to be in overdrive, as if doubling the speed will make things funnier. It doesn’t. The final effect is a dizzying array of people and furniture flying about the stage, afloat on a stream of meaningless chatter.
The real problem here is the voice and perspective of the play itself. Douglas Carter Beane (who penned the screenplay To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar) has written a piece in which all the characters sound like gay men, who are, I imagine, the target audience. There are constant references to musicals, lines from movies (“Look Auntie Mame! Long pants!” one character exclaims while trying on a suit), and a string of incidentals that are simply lost on the average theatergoer.
The language of a subculture never plays well in the larger culture. Rather than draw people together, this language only divides and confuses the audience. Sitting behind me on the night I attended were two legendary women of the theater, both Tony Award winners, who triumphed on Broadway a few seasons ago. At intermission one turned to the other and said, “What the hell are they saying? This is not about people. Who talks like this?” The other veteran replied, “Well, we can’t leave—I mean they gave us the tickets—but I’d like to go.” Glad to know I wasn’t the only one.
The perspective on women is equally screwy. Where the male characters bear some semblance of reality, the females are total cartoons. Alexa, the lead character, is not really a female at all, but a drag queen: a synthesis of female stereotypes projected through a gay prism. While she gets off a few zingers and ruminates cryptically on the nature of art and fame, Alexa fails to touch us. Since we can in no way relate to the characters of the piece, the worthy ideas about the ugly side of fame are lost. Such is the cost of wallowing in stereotypes and camp.
Gross Indecency suffers from many of the same maladies. Like As Bees In Honey Drown, it too is intended for a gay audience. Hailed by Time as one of the best shows of 1997, it concerns itself with the three trials of the playwright Oscar Wilde. At the urging of his male lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde sues the boy’s father for suggesting that he (Wilde) is a “posing sodomite.” Three trials later we find that Wilde is not just posing, and he is found guilty of gross indecency. During the entire play Wilde argues his innocence in the name of art.
“There is no morality governing art,” he says, “only a sense of beauty.” For more than two hours there are endless monologues about the beastly “moral people” and the “beauty and nobility of the love which dare not speak its name.” Then there is the obligatory parting shot at any “moral people” who may have wandered in: During the epilogue it is announced that the cad who started all this, Lord Alfred Douglas, later married (a woman), was “a Nazi sympathizer, and became a Catholic”—the end of the litany receives the gravest tone of all!
While this presentation is many things, a play is not one of them. It is certainly not dramatic: Bereft of narrative, the thing is literally a series of quotations. Before characters speak, the male chorus seated down front announces things like: “from Oscar Wilde by Sheridan Morley, page 144.” They proceed to present the book itself, as the characters launch into the quotation. It’s like a staged reading at a library—and the only show I’ve ever seen with footnotes. Played by Edward Hibbert, Wilde looks more like Lady Bracknell in a morning suit. As an actor he has the annoying habit of striking a pose near the end of a line and then holding it. He remains stone still, with a masklike expression on his face, as if he just caught his own image in the mirror and couldn’t bear to move. Despite the histrionics, the audience isn’t moved either.
The piece (I hesitate to call it a play) is little more than propaganda. It certainly does a great disservice to Oscar Wilde by reducing the personhood of the man to his sexual appetites. The author, Moises Kaufman, has made Wilde a symbol of persecution here, a martyr for his homosexuality. What he hasn’t done is make a sympathetic or realistic character. Wilde never talks about his wife and children, who presumably suffered through the trial with him, neither does he really ever consider ending his relationship with the boy. The conflict in his life is just not in evidence. In the end, this script is just a mouthpiece heralding the virtues of what has become the gay lifestyle.
No one is saying that gay characters should not be included in plays, or even be the subject of a play, but first they need to be human characters. This requires eyes that see each life as the precious gift it is, regardless of the failings and foibles of the individual. There is more to people, including homosexuals, than their sexuality. If authors like the ones above are so blinded by sex and agenda that they can’t reveal the richer aspects of humanity, they risk losing their mission, their purpose, and their audience.