Fresh Fruit Festival
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
July 13, 2007
What Do Men Want? is a double bill of short plays: Lay Down and Love Me Again, written and performed by James Howell, and The Naked Dead Elephant in the Middle of the Room by Larson Rose. The latter is a light-hearted satire of gay indie theater-making, featuring a young playwright who creates a one-act play for a summer festival right before our eyes on stage. The playwright, Edmond, sits at his laptop while his boyfriend Jack alternately helps and heckles him; there's also a hunky guy named Dave who shows up in several fantasy sequences, plus a theatre critic who interrupts the play several times to offer his take (always negative) on what's going on. Edmund's main concern is that he avoid the cliches, as he sees them, of gay playwriting, but at the same time he wants the thing to sell: so the question of gratuitous nudity comes up quite a bit, along with how autobiographical the piece can be, whether it should have a diverse cast (should the downstairs neighbor—originally conceived as Dave—instead be a woman named Scarlett?), and is a little sex and profanity okay, or will that limit future performances in high schools?
Naked Dead Elephant toys with the conventions of contemporary gay theatre and with the ways that theatre in general is produced and created at the indie/festival level. It never takes itself too seriously, but it never overplays its self-referential meta-ness, which is a relief after the self-consciousness of the similarly themed but tediously executed (and much longer) [title of show]. It's an engaging trifle that doesn't overstay its welcome, and teases the audience playfully in just the right ways.
The author has directed it himself, quite effectively. Actors Keith Broughton (Edmond), Adam Pellegrine (Jack), Zach Held (Dave), and Jesse Stewart (Critic) are all fine, especially Broughton, who makes our talkative and indecisive protagonist enormously likable.
Lay Down and Love Me Again is a fascinating, perplexing solo piece about a man named Kevin who says he can't get out of his bedroom; in his pajamas, and using just a few found objects, he creates several characters in a series of connected monologues that, for me, never quite tied together coherently. We meet the preacher who Kevin imagines delivering the eulogy at his own funeral, Kevin's mother, and his therapist. What they say is intriguing and off-kilter but it always feel like wild stream-of-consciousness: it's almost like beat poetry, relishing the sounds and individual meanings of its words without seeming to care what it adds up to. Howell is a gutsy performer, though, and I'd be interested to see other work by him.
John Green's new drama, Mentor, is a solemn two-act, 90-minute march towards the inevitable. By which I mean that the play's outcome is apparent within the first five minutes. Not what Green had in mind, I'm sure, but the result nonetheless.
Set in 1982 Kansas City, Mentor looks at the love-hate relationship between Phillip, a former English professor, and Michael, his star pupil from back in the day. Michael and his girlfriend, Rachel, are on their way to Colorado from New York (for reasons that are revealed later on) and stop at Phillip's house for a visit. The two men have not seen each other in several years, and it turns out they have some unfinished business. Michael still craves the approval of his old teacher in every aspect of life, while Phillip seems alternately thrilled and annoyed by his former student's presence. What's going on here? Guess.
Mentor is the kind of play where the characters speak in either bitchy bon mots or soulfully intended platitudes. Comments like "Hearts break because others do not know how to let you love them," and "I don't believe in accidents—accidents are just another way of saying I'm a victim" abound. These people don't talk to each other as much as they talk at each other. And, they all have a bone to pick with each other. Consequently, most of them come off as rather unpleasant. Especially the two protagonists, whose relationship is so antagonistic it makes one wonder why they remain in contact. The only character who comes off well is Phillip's younger boyfriend, Donald, who is genuinely likable and funny. Michael Cenname's endearing performance in this role is also a big help.
James Martinelli directs Mentor without any sense of urgency or focus. The drama's events just sort of play out on stage in real-ish time and ignore tempo. I'm guessing part of this is due to the fact that Martinelli also plays Phillip, a character who is on stage for almost the entire play. Wearing both hats seems to take away from him giving a hundred percent in either capacity. This is too bad since his performance hints at the emotional depths he could possibly reach.
His direction, however, needs some work. The crucial misstep is the casting of Vincent Caruso as Michael, only because Caruso looks older than Martinelli—a major gaffe since he's supposed to play younger. Other curiosities include a slipshod attention to detail: the numerous cans of Tab are straight up 1982, but Phillip's CD player is more like 2002 (not to mention that CDs weren't yet commonplace in the early 80s—and what's with those random Donna Summer LPs and that one stray book lying randomly on the floor?).
Mentor is a good idea for a play, but as it stands right now that's all it is.
Who, besides Eugene O'Neill perhaps, knew that a pathetic drunk of a father could be so likeable? Thomas Poarch in the drama Monroe Bound, currently playing in the LGBT-themed Fresh Fruit Festival, renders a stereotypical Southern-alcoholic-redneck into a captivating and vulnerable man. As Alvin Monroe, Poarch shuffles about the stage as if he were lost, too disoriented by his agonizing memories to know where to step next. When he declares his modest ambitions—he'd like to get a dog—he exposes himself not as a do-nothing deadbeat, but as a guy who just wants a little companionship. And every time he sees his daughter Lexington, gracefully played by Hannah Flint, the tense lines on Poarch's face soften and his beaming smile reveals how unabashedly he adores his child.
His steadily enjoyable performance, as directed by Anthony C. E. Nelson, was enough to make my face brighten too, as Monroe Bound is a slow-paced mishmash of stories that could have used a little streamlining. In this loving father-daughter relationship, Alvin and Lexington each guiltily keeps a secret from the other. Lexington, a bisexual, has not come out to her father. While working in an über-trendy restaurant in the East Village, she begins dating the fascinating photographer Pace, charismatically played by Liz Bangs. Meanwhile, Alvin has been lying to Lexington about her absent mother. It turns out that she did not die in a car crash, as Lexington has grown up believing, but selfishly abandoned her newborn baby and husband.
This is a nice premise for a play, and indeed, the scenes between Alvin and Lexington are the most dramatically compelling. Poarch and Flint convey an easy affection for each other while still tapping into an undercurrent of anxiety. What's more, playwright Lucile Scott draws a lovely parallel between Lexington's tendency towards self-destructive behavior (she quickly acclimates herself to the East Village scene with a steady pill-popping addiction) and Alvin's uncontrollable alcoholism.
But Scott fails to capitalize upon the conflict that she has set up. Rather than focus on the risk of these secrets being revealed, and the detrimental consequences that might follow, Scott crowds the storyline with numerous flashbacks from Alvin's life. Alvin's memories—mainly of his hot-and-cold romantic relationship with a prostitute—may indicate his regrets and insecurities, but they bear little relevance to the main conflict. Alvin's demons might have been more interesting if he were actively exorcising them, as opposed to consistently reflecting on them.
However, the bulk of the action is taken up by the hesitant romance between Lexington and Pace. Flint and Bangs generate real sexual tension in their flirtatious exchanges. When Bangs playfully smacks Flint's arm as she leaves her crush, you can't help but be charmed by their preciously awkward interactions. But regardless of the actresses' talent, we still don't get a sense that anything is at stake for Lexington and Pace. What is lost or gained if they get together or never do? Because the characters are so thinly-drawn, and their conversations are so insignificant and conversational, it's never apparent why the two women might truly need each other.
It did not help that Saturday night's performance included numerous technical snafus, the most distracting being the house lights that remained on through the show's first 15 minutes. But even if perfect technical execution accompanied the good performances by the three leads, nothing could change the fact that not a whole lot happens in Monroe Bound.
A little bit clunky, a little bit corny, this offering from the Fresh Fruit Festival is, like its protagonists—a gay couple celebrating their 25th year together—not the freshest fruit on the vine. Still, the play has spirit and pace, is well performed, and shows such affection toward its characters that it's hard to dislike.
Alan Brady and Terry Mills are first met on the morning of their anniversary, a day that is to culminate in a party thrown for them that night by their friend Brian. Playwright Richard A. Pettey captures well the morning chatter of a long-term couple, fond endearments cohabiting with complaints of waning libido and the smell Terry has left in the bathroom. Before the day is out, numerous crises will occur that will test the mettle of these two, but the outcome is never really in doubt.
The sensibility here is pure sitcom, less a bawdy, hip Friends than a wisecracking but stolid Brady Bunch, with life lessons to teach. Though he touches on issues of infidelity, loneliness, and deception, Pettey's interest is less in exploring the anxieties of aging gay coupledom than in making the familiar assertion that gay love is as "strong and real and true" as that shared by heterosexuals. "How can any love be unnatural when it comes from the heart?" asks Terry to Alan, when Alan's parents have revealed (for the first time! after 25 years!) that they oppose their son's relationship and way of life.
I suppose such uplift is still necessary. Acceptance, and self-acceptance, are just as difficult to find for some today, many years post-Stonewall, as they ever were. But Pettey has not quite been able to avoid making the sentiment dramatically inert, and there was something less than edifying in seeing middle-aged gay men having to console themselves in this way. (It doesn't help that anger is ruled out as an option. "Aren't you getting carried away?" asks Terry, when Alan raises his voice. Then they agree, in perhaps a poor choice of words, not to "shove [their] sexuality" down Alan's father's throat.)
The actors acquit themselves admirably. Carney Gray as the young-as-you-feel, stalwart Terry, and Bill Cooper as high-strung Alan, make a plausible and touching couple, and they are abetted by a strong and likeable supporting cast. Among them, Andre LeTendre finds humor and poignancy in his camp role, Isaac J. Loomer is charmingly flustered as an unexpected visitor, Kevin Carnahan is believably distraught as a man accused of sexual misconduct, and Carol Vnuk is very amusing as a model of deadpan wifely obedience. Director Karen Swager tends to block people in a line, center stage, but paces the action well, and handles the shifts in tone without too much disjunction.
Pettey's bio says that this is his first full-length play, "hopefully the first of many." He has talent, and should be encouraged. Perhaps next time he can venture a little further outside what is familiar to him, and surprise himself and us with what he finds.
William & James, A Village Scene Productions' contribution to this year's Fresh Fruit Festival, takes place in Victorian England and begins with a seduction. James, the older and more established of the two, invites William, his young, blond, lanky charge, into the main bedroom of his country estate in England. William, an impetuous, not-so-subtle social climber, wants to jump right in but James slows the proceedings to ask a couple of questions. William doesn't mind this: he says he enjoys the chase. As the scene progresses and William, circling him, taunts him with a flirtatious finger or a well-parried double entendre, James fires a question which causes William a bit of discomfort. "What would you do if you knew you were going to die in two years?" William dodges the question as morbid and the proper seduction ensues but the question hovers over the entire scene: who is chasing here and who is being chased? Is William in danger? Is James?
The answer begins the following morning when James proposes an arrangement: For two years' companionship, James will support William financially and sexually and, in the end, bequeath him the entirety of his estate. James makes it very clear that he isn't interested in love: he's tried it and it seems to have worked out horribly. William, a naïve but scrappily self-educated man-child, accepts the offer, adding that love doesn't interest him either. This struck me as the greatest "friends with benefits" situation since the dawn of man. To two fairly jaded men at two ends of the social spectrum interested in sex and the appearance of companionship, what does love—to paraphrase Tina Turner—got to do with it?
Well, this play says, everything.
The last four scenes of William & James follow the pair as they live out the reality of this arrangement and it's to playwright Robert Tsonos's subtle credit that the love which cannot be named in this play is not homosexuality, which is always taken as a given, but love itself. The play does a great job of illustrating not only love's glories but also the scorched earth remnants it leaves in its wake. Love stops for no one, it seems to be saying, and as jaded and cynical as we may become, it isn't always pretty and will not be denied. William and James' affections and dependence grow scene by scene but they consistently undermine their feelings by denying they exist or convincing themselves that love is not what they are looking for. Love is having none of that though, and the show's drama springs from the characters' failure to acknowledge and deal with it.
Ryan Brown and Christian Bugden are excellent as William and James respectively. Davyn Ryall's direction passes over emotional nuances at times but he and the actors display a remarkable patience with the material, allowing it the space and time to reveal itself. And though the program doesn't say who created them, the costumes are a pleasure to look at.
Can love stand the test of time? The Long Ride Home, playing at the Fresh Fruit Festival, provides an honest examination of long-term relationships and whether the rockiest of them can last. The play, beautifully written by Robert Charles Gompers, moves its audience adeptly from laughter to tears, and truthfully portrays the journey of lifelong love.
The play follows the first and second efforts at a relationship between James and Paul, played by an older and younger set of actors. The play jumps back and forth in time, as if the story is being told through the lovers' memories. It's a beautiful and honest way to construct looking back at a lifetime of loving someone. Slowly, the play reveals the best and worst moments of the relationship between the two men.
The Long Ride Home is most appealing in its comedic moments, in which the actors are all charming and lovable. The play suffers slightly in its more dramatic scenes, which at times come across as dishonest, trite, or cliché.
The most appealing cast member is David Beck as the younger Paul, who wins the audience over with his boyish charm. He subtly navigates through each moment of the relationship, as he fights for his relationship with James to work.
The actors pull off the challenging feat of playing the same characters expertly. Dan Almekinder as the older Paul portrays charm equal to Beck's with ease. Joe Capozzi as the older James and Tim McCann as the younger James are also believable as the more serious-minded half of the relationship. Both actors convincingly portray the struggle of alcoholism and fighting to make themselves better for the person that they love.
The play could have been more expertly staged, as at times it seemed that the actors were wandering off and on to get ready for the next scene. The pace also could have been accelerated, which would have taken the audience further in their emotional investment. The framing scenes, with Bilgin Turker as disapproving friend Liz, especially suffered and practically stopped the show. In fact, the character could have been cut altogether, and would have brought more focus into the story of James and Paul. The way that they talked about her character, it was obvious that there was some disapproval of the relationship, and I didn't find it necessary to also show it. Unfortunately, the slowest and most confusing scene is the opening, which lacked in the objectives that would have gotten the audience interested in the story. Luckily, the scenes that followed were a treat.
In the end, however, those minor flaws don't matter. Gompers has written a truthful, heart-wrenching play that anyone who has experienced life or love can connect to. The Long Ride Home is the simple story of a complex relationship, and a compelling night at the theatre.