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Oh, to be young and queer. It’s a hell of lot easier now, right? Apparently, it’s frequently still just hell. Yes, it’s the new gay ’90s, but for every far-reaching Supreme Court victory, every out-and-proud pop-culture role model, there’s a schoolyard taunt and a flint-hearted parent. And always, looming against the horizon that divides youth and adulthood, there’s the virus.
The terrors—and the manifold corresponding joys—of coming out and coming to terms under the Contract With America get a thorough going-over in They Never Said a Word, a sometimes predictable but often moving new play by local writer Ron O’Leary, who drew his inspiration from real-life stories of gay and lesbian teens. Some of those same concerns are ostensibly part of the package in David Dillon’s party, an undeniably entertaining but distinctly fluffy comedy that got its start in Chicago a few years back and subsequently enjoyed an off-Broadway run. party purports to have a moral—Dillon seems to want to say a couple of things about the extended families gay men create—but it’s really just an excuse for an assortment of young bucks to get naked for an audience.
Of the two plays, the former is more satisfying, though the latter is certainly no hardship to watch. Word benefits from sensitive writing and a young, energetic, and engaging cast, but it unfolds without frippery in the tiny, bare-bones black box at Theater J, where it’s being produced by the Rose Organization.
Start-up company Dupont Productions, on the other hand, clearly spent some bucks tarting up the Church Street space for party, which invites the audience to watch as a group of attractive, acerbically articulate Guppies trade wisecracks and shed wardrobes during a party game that’s basically a bolder variation of Truth or Dare. Designer Patrick Suarez uses a kind of decorative shorthand—exposed brick wall, show posters, Crate & Barrel furniture, and a vaguely unhealthy-looking philodendron—to clue the audience in on precisely what kind of urban gay men this romp is about.
Basically, they’re the prosperous, white, and winsome cast of Longtime Companion, although nothing as untidy as illness ever gets more than a passing reference. There’s the host, Kevin, a 30-ish college professor, and Peter, his somewhat younger roommate (not lover, though complications ensue). There’s Brian, a promiscuous chorus gypsy, Philip, a laid-back, sensible sort, James, a taciturn, leather-clad hulk, and Andy, an adorable but largely clueless student, who at one point makes the mistake of referring to the Evita cast album as a “soundtrack.” This heresy sends party’s most over-the-top character, a screamingly fey Roman Catholic priest named Ray, into paroxysms of offended queer sensibility, and his outraged monologue is the evening’s best-crafted and most effective. Mind you, that’s not saying a great deal.
party is like a lighter-hearted Boys in the Band; drunkenness leads to hilarity, but not, since nowadays we’re all better adjusted, to bitterness. It’s essentially an exercise in camp, and when it’s camping, it’s amusing. Someone—presumably director Jeff Keenan—has updated it with references to Elaine Stritch’s recent Tony nomination and localized it with snide asides about “lemon-chicken Georgetown fags,” local gay nightspots, Signature Theatre director Eric Schaeffer, and TV personality Arch Campbell (don’t ask). But it should be noted that the evening’s most elegant witticisms (except for that one glorious canonical rant) are lifted from camp-classic plays and films—Tea and Sympathy, The Women, that sort of thing. Dillon’s own epigrams aren’t as finely tuned as Anderson’s and Boothe’s; at one point, he even descends to the level of the flatulence joke. And when his play stops to preach about safe sex or the value of chosen families, it loses all momentum.
That’s partly due to the D.C. cast members, whose acting isn’t quite subtle enough to make their putative closeness entirely convincing. (The original Chicagoans were so comfortable with each other that their tight friendship was entirely believable and their utter lack of self-consciousness seemed less unlikely. These guys have a way to go.)
But most of the trouble can be laid at Dillon’s doorstep. Nakedness on stage is usually a cue to look for naked emotions; if the play has any kind of depth—think Angels in America and Love! Valour! Compassion!—the stripping off of clothing signals the relaxing of defenses, the lowering of masks. Despite one or two attempts at seriousness, Dillon’s party boys don’t go there; they’re never honest enough to come out from behind their brittle façades. They’re fun, but they’re never naked—they’re just nekkid, and even if you remember the bodies, you’ll forget the characters before you get home.
There’s no danger of that with They Never Said a Word. The eight University of Maryland students on the Theater J stage don’t, as far as I can tell, have a tremendous amount of theatrical experience under their collective belt, but the awkwardness that occasionally marks their performances only adds a kind of raw urgency to the stories they have to tell.
And tell them they do. The cast members—Jason D. Grant, Jacqueline Stone, Devron Young, Cary L. Duschl, Jerry Richardson, Jennifer Norkin, Ferris W. Howland, and Kevin H. Berryman—assume at least three or four identities each in this 90-minute sketch collection, reflecting starkly on the crushing loneliness of the closet and the quiet, oppressive terror of the waiting room, acting out parental confrontations and back-alley beatings, reminiscing gently about first crushes, first times, and first heartbreaks.
Like party, O’Leary’s script frequently mines humor from stereotypes: “How many cats do you have between the both of you?” a panelist in the “Name That Queer” sketch asks two female contestants, in an effort to smoke out a lesbian. A moment later, in a bit called “TV Guide,” the dykes watch women’s tennis, gather in front of the tube with the straight guys for football, and surrender the clicker to the gay men for the afternoon soaps—but everybody sits entranced when it’s time for Baywatch.
And like Dillon, O’Leary occasionally lets his play turn into a lecture. “The Family Fitness Hour,” a lampoon of The 700 Club and its ilk, is too bitter, too angry, and too didactic. And in “11/8/94,” the kids run down a list of violent hate crimes reported since the Contract With America was signed, while a smug straight white boy stands aloof on the sidelines, snarling about shiftless minorities and insisting that “the playing field is level now.” As politics, it’s a nicely dramatic moment; as drama, it’s a bit too easy.
What’s best about They Never Said a Word—and what elevates it, flaws and all, above party—is the way it wears its heart unabashedly on its sleeve. For all its politics, it’s tender and funny and sweet, a deft and passionate statement about the commonalities of the gay and lesbian experience—and of the human experiment in the ’90s. There’s no nudity here, just naked honesty. Some of us have heard it all before—and lived much of it—and for those, it’ll ring true. For others, it could be a revelation.CP