nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
August 11, 2005
I don’t understand. I really just don’t get it. Can someone please explain to me why so many of the gay plays and musicals that get the kind of backing needed for an off Broadway run are so completely innocuous and unsubstantial? Why do they rehash issues that are already worn to threads or are—as in this case—so anachronistic as to make the whole thing seem silly? Whose fault is this? The producers who won’t take a chance on anything that has even as much relevance as your average Will and Grace episode? Is it the gay audience’s fault for settling for this type of product and paying $65 to fill seats simply because there is nothing better? And please don’t go calling me a snob or a party poop. I like a good, light, romantic comedy as much as anybody, but…but…
Okay, follow me here: Joy, by John Fisher, is about five men and two women, all in their mid 20s to 30-ish, living in San Francisco in 1996. Most are academics; graduate students, librarians, professors. When the play begins, five of the seven characters are either not yet in touch with the fact that they are gay, or are actively in the closet.
IN SAN FRANCISCO!!
I will interrupt my rant to say that I like the writing style. There are some interesting, original script devices used. The characters each narrate at different times. There's no fourth wall, and often the characters re-enact scenes from the past, sometimes in pantomime. It’s all clever, funny, and very smoothly directed by Ben Rimalower. Also, the seven cast members are all great comic actors who are fun to watch, and the evening has many witty moments and lots of laughs.
But the play: The play begins with Paul (Paul Whitthorne), a radical-thinking history student who is writing a doctoral dissertation proving Jesus was gay, pining over Gabriel (Christopher Sloan), the man that got away. Paul tells the audience about his belief that gay love, because it is not bound with the idea of procreation, is much more directly rooted in desire, and that because of this, gay relationships have the potential of achieving a special and pure kind of joy (the play was originally called "The Joy of Gay Sex"). I love this idea: that being gay is not a handicap in the relationship department; that, in fact, being gay opens doors in love and relationships that aren’t available to straight people. Our love is, in some ways, better.
Paul then meets up in the Castro with his friend Corey (Ken Barnette), a professor on his thesis evaluation team. Corey is having coffee with a student, Gabriel. Paul assumes the two are on a date. They are not. In fact Corey was not yet out to Gabriel before Paul outed him (huh?) and Gabriel is claiming to be straight, despite all external indicia to the contrary. Paul decides to pursue Gabriel. In the meantime, Paul’s best friend Kegan (January LaVoy) shows up with her boyfriend Christian (Ben Curtis, the “Dude you’re getting a Dell” guy) who seems to get lost a lot when they are in the Castro, and spends a lot of time in bathrooms.
Christian is suddenly smitten with Corey and pursues him at school. Kegan, in the meantime, falls suddenly and passionately in lust and love with Elsa (Ryan Kelly) whom she first sees at a traffic light. Elsa, we later learn, had sex with her best girlfriend from age eleven to fifteen, until her friend realized they were having sex. Kegan and Paul follow Elsa to the library where she works with Gabriel. Some very funny stalking ensues, and by the time it is over, Kegan is a lesbian, Elsa is out (and they are together); Gabriel is out (and hooked up with Paul); and Christian is gay or out (not quite sure if he was closeted or not sure he was gay) and hooked up with Corey.
The seventh character, Darryl (Michael Busillo), shows up at an ill-fated party Paul and Gabriel throw. He is in the ROTC and says he’s straight. He is also taking a dance class with Elsa. The two of them perform a Native American dance number as part of the class performance. Gabriel, who is at this point having trouble with Paul, attends the performance. Upon seeing Darryl perform the traditional-inspired modern dance in nothing but two feathers and a loin cloth, Gabriel falls in love with Darryl (okay, I will concede this plot point because…well…so did I.). Before the train gets them both home, they have flirted, kissed and, poof, Darryl is either gay or out (see above).
At no point does anyone express any real surprise or confusion about what is going on here. Why, for instance, isn’t radical Paul shocked that his best friend is suddenly a repressed lesbian all this time? Or that her boyfriend was really gay? And why is Gabriel—a closet case even in San Francisco—suddenly comfortable coming out and quickly moving in with Paul? And how does Darryl go from ROTC to loin cloth to one of the Andrews Sisters at a costume party in a few months time? And why were all these gay grad students playing it straight in San Francisco? Isn’t that why people go to school in San Francisco: to be out?
What is missing here is what Paul promised us at the very beginning: a real exploration of the joy that being gay opens up, and how the joy of gay sex and gay relationships is truly unique and special. That would be new. That would be exciting. That would be worthy of an off-Broadway run.