“Aren’t we past this yet?” asks one of the dozen or so gay characters in Dan Butler’s much ballyhooed one-man show. This guy, a tightly wound and slightly nelly queen facing the prospect of his 10-year high-school reunion, is obsessing over whether he really needs to do the coming-out thing when at last he faces his former classmates. But he might as well be asking whether the solo gay confessional hasn’t become something of a theatrical cliche.
It has, of course; promiscuous homo navel-gazing has only increased in popularity (and declined in overall quality) since Tim Miller enraged the NEA-bashers with shows like Golden States and My Queer Body. Doug Sadownick has done it. Michael Kearns has done it. David Drake did it nearly to death in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. It’s gotten to the point where those of us who’ve lived scenes like the ones in these shows might be excused for reacting with a “Yeah, so tell me something new.”
That said, The Only Thing Worse…, running at Church Street Theater with an accomplished young actor named Christopher Borg, is a fine example of the genre; it’s frequently touching if not especially profound, generally funny if not hysterically so, and Butler—the out gay actor who plays the terminally straight, hypermacho sportscaster “Bulldog” Briscoe on TV’s Frasier—writes with an appealing earnestness that presumably makes this show less threatening to straight audiences than some of its more strident cousins.
There’s also an impressive structural balance here, coupled with an unflinching acknowledgement that heterosexuals have no monopoly on prejudice. In one scene, a mother warns her gay son not to come out to his bigoted stepfather; a moment later, a white gay man rants about the way “fringe elements” (like lesbians, blacks, and Latinos) are diluting the effectiveness of AIDS activism—co-opting “our disease,” as he puts it, by demanding attention for “their” issues. Of the two, I’d rather have dinner with the stepfather.
Butler goes a step further—and goes the usual queer-monologue formula one better—by including the Critic, a condescending Bruce Baweresque character who appears several times to inject a little socially conservative acid into the flow of self-affirmation. “What if we really are what they say we are?” the Critic asks. “One’s perception of oneself comes from the people one surrounds oneself with….I think it would make life a lot simpler to know that you were, are, and always will be damaged goods.”
Regrettably, Borg’s performance invites us to dismiss this guy as a self-hating prig (surely not Butler’s intention); he’s better when he assumes an arch drag-doyenne persona (one part RuPaul, three parts Eartha Kitt) for a great-gays-in-history lecture titled “Precious.” The actor is convincingly wide-eyed in a poignantly funny bit about a fifth-grader who can’t quite figure out why he likes his wrestling buddy so much, and he brings a genuinely moving warmth and humanity to the last vignette, in which Leslie, a sweet-natured Southern boy trying to make it in Hollywood, falls hard for a friend in the last stages of AIDS.
That final scene, which closes with a quote from Yeats on the enduring qualities of love, is probably the best in the show. Like one or two of the others, it deals not with notions of gay identity so much as ideas about individuality and personal integrity. In these scenes, Butler gets at some of the questions that cross the gay-straight divide: What is love, and will we recognize it when it comes? Why is it so hard to let down our defenses and let love in once it arrives? Experience, of course, has the best answers to these questions—or, as Leslie puts it, “Y’learn stuff when y’learn it”—but Butler provides a few insights to mull over while we’re waiting.CP