Opening this year’s GayFest and taking its title from a lyric in Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By,” Moonlight & Love Songs explores the May/December romance of two gay men. But its copious laughs and talented cast simply can’t overcome the play’s slippery morality.
Now playing until June 2 at the intimate June Havoc Theatre in midtown’s Abington Theatre Arts Complex, Moonlight is sprinkled with well-known quotes from romantic movies and chock full of laugh-out-loud moments as our twosome, Jim and Harry, navigates the tricky waters of younger man/older man relationships. But as written by General Hospital screenwriter and playwright Scott C. Sickles (Intellectuals), the play suffers from overly romanticizing the lead storyline and glossing over the reality of the situation.
Harry believes Jim to be 20, but still has reservations about sleeping with someone young enough to be his son. His lust and loneliness, however, trump his trepidation and the two end up in bed together. They soon discover a mutual love of old-time romance movies and begin to fall in love themselves.
But (SPOILER ALERT) when Jim is revealed to be a 15-year-old high school senior, the play takes a sharp left turn from which it is never able to recover. The hyper-sexualized Jim becomes tainted with exploitativeness as the 20-something actor who portrays him is often shirtless and in his underwear, especially when Harry, his older lover, remains fully clothed throughout, even in the bedroom scenes.
Nick Bailey (recently Newbie in Hit the Wall at the Barrow Street Theatre) nails the boyish, irresistible charm of Jim, but his character is too similar to the ones from Dawson’s Creek, Gossip Girl, and other contemporary television shows: teenagers wise beyond their years and possessing a precociousness that rarely exists in the real world. Muscular and good-looking, he also in no way resembles a teenage boy — which may or may not be the point — regardless of his youthful demeanor.
Gerald McCullouch (Bobby Dawson on CSI and Roger in the BearCity films) as Harry ably inhabits the middle-aged doldrums of being alone and capably handles the burgeoning love and ultimate betrayal inherent in his romance with Jim. Moving from frustration to fulfillment then hit over the head with a staggering dose of reality, McCullouch makes audience members believe in and sympathize with his character. He and Mr. Bailey have an easy, combustible chemistry together as well.
Supplying many of the laughs, Kathryn Markey as Harry’s pregnant sister nearly steals the show with her constant wisecracks, with delightful straight man assistance from Corey Richmond Skaggs as her genial husband, who is also Harry’s boss and closest friend. The scene where her water breaks is particularly hysterical. However, it may have been better staged concurrently with the scene that follows — where her befuddled husband receives a telephone call that she is going into labor — with both scenes happening onstage in real time as opposed to one after another. Aside from that one quibble, director Steven Petrillo keeps the play well-paced to keep the snorts and giggles coming fast and furious.
But an unnecessary subplot about Jim’s minister father and cancer-stricken mother (well played by D.H. Johnson and Christine Verleny, respectively) further mucks the moral waters of an already murky play and slows down the action considerably. The father’s philandering in the face of his wife’s sickness seems tacked on to shift the ethical spotlight from Jim and Harry’s now criminal — and potentially prison-inducing — relationship. The stakes never seem high enough in the second half of the play for both Jim, who is coerced into charging Harry with statutory rape, or Harry, whose reaction to such charges never reaches satisfying levels of anger, fear, or realization.
However enjoyable, Moonlight & Love Songs simply can’t tackle such weighty issues as the correctness of age of consent laws and consensual adultery after establishing itself as primarily a romantic comedy, regardless of how charismatic the actors are or how funny the script is.