A couple of one-man shows opened in D.C. this past weekend, timed to coincide with last Sunday’s gay civil rights march, and it’s a curious thing: Both could be described as gay-themed shows, if you’re looking for shorthand, but neither is just about being gay. They’re not even about coming to terms with being gay, really. For the most part, Marc Wolf’s Another American: Asking and Telling and Guillermo Reyes’ Men on the Verge of a His-panic Breakdown take non-normative sexuality as a given and move on from there. That makes them second-generation plays in a genre that spent an awfully long time in the nursery—and that makes them a lot more appealing.
True, Another American overshadows its smaller, slighter cousin. A slick Studio Theatre production that subjects the gays-in-the-military question to withering scrutiny, Marc Wolf’s two-hour enterprise is a first-rate script staged by a first-rate team. Wolf turns out to be a performer of no mean skills, and he’s directed here by Joe Mantello (Broadway’s Love! Valour! Compassion!), a veteran who underscores the play’s more serious moments with sure instincts for the pointed gesture and the graceful, resonant image.
And true, Another American has a decided air of Anna Deveare Smith about it—but I mean that in the best possible way. Like Smith, who pioneered and perfected the interview-as-theater genre with Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Wolf has sought out all manner of people about a divisive issue and crafted a play from their conversations. Like Smith, he makes a point of letting the audience know that the words and the viewpoints onstage are not his own but his subjects’, and, also like Smith, he’s quite good at pulling an interviewee’s skin over his own features.
Wolf’s portrait of longtime Washington activist Frank Kameny is instantly, hysterically recognizable; his impersonation of the academic who spawned the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy paints a devastating portrait of smug self-involvement; his characterization of ex-soldier Miriam Ben Shalom is a bracing dose of bitter outrage and grief.
There’s humor, and no shortage of it, in the pair of older lesbians who keep a suspicious distance from the unseen interviewer (and to a certain extent from each other), and there’s profound pathos in Dorothy Hajdys, whose sailor son Allen was so brutally beaten by his shipmates on the Belleau Wood that she had to identify his body by the tattoos she’d hated from the moment he got them. (What’s best about this segment, which is among the best in Another American, is the way it updates the story of Allen and his mother: The media lost interest in them not too long after their tragedy, and Wolf’s beautifully structured, beautifully played vignette makes clear that if Dorothy Hajdys has managed to go on living for these several years, each day she lives longer than her murdered son exacts its terrible price.)
Wolf’s technique is as impressive as his impersonations: He goes from blistering anger to penetrating sadness and wry resignation to stolid good humor as though he’s merely shifting gears, and his sense of the tone of the evening seems as keen as his ear for the nuances of accent and speech rhythm. The sum of his efforts is a damning indictment of an inhumane policy—and a damn fine evening of theater, too.
Daniel Luna is another capable actor, even in some respects a gifted one, and there are moments in Men on the Verge when everything’s clicking and he’s terrific. But Guillermo Reyes, author of the slender 90-minute property Luna anchors at Round House Theatre, isn’t the strongest writer, and more than once you get the sense that the actor may be working so hard to sell the material that he’s overselling himself.
Men on the Verge opens with a bit about a young Mexican, Frederico, who arrives in L.A. on the eve of the Rodney King riots. The play uses Federico’s story as both bookend and occasional bookmark, coming back to touch base with him between interludes with a kept New York boy, an aging Cuban restaurateur in Phoenix, and a dying Spanish drag queen who calls herself La Gitana and all but revels in the sordid drama of her untimely end. The show is a light, often comic riff on being gay and Hispanic in a place that isn’t sure how it feels about either, and it works best when it’s trading on the painful ironies that arise from that conflict.
In places, Men on the Verge takes on the pungency and bite of first-rate cultural commentary, particularly in a sequence about a Hollywood actor who hides his ethnicity and his sexuality only to learn that suddenly everybody needs a Latino and nobody cares that he’s gay, also in a sequence about an overstressed teacher who uses English as a second language to abuse a classroomful of immigrants who remind him of the fears and frustrations he associates with his first language. Elsewhere, it’s usually entertaining—and, if nothing else, it’s brief. And for a one-man show that’s singing more than a one-note tune, that’s not bad at all. CP