The Madness of Lady Bright
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 11, 2006
As part of their ongoing look backward at the roots of off-off-Broadway, TOSOS II and Peculiar Works Project are presenting a revival of Lanford Wilson's 1964 one-act play The Madness of Lady Bright. The production, directed by Mark Finley and featuring a shrewdly dense yet abstract set by Michael Muccio, is excellent, and Michael Lynch, in the title role, and his co-stars Melissa Center and Marlon Hurt give superb performances. Playing at the Duplex in Greenwich Village on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 7pm, this 45-minute piece is the perfect start to an evening out on the town.
The "Lady" of the play's title is Leslie Bright, a gay man of indeterminate (middle) age who's feeling, on this particular hot Saturday New York night in the early '60s, old, alone, and desperate. His only companion is a princess-style rotary phone (how quaint such an instrument looks in this micro-cellphone age!), but the only number that answers when he calls is Dial-a-Prayer: everyone he knows seems to be out.
And so, in between increasingly panicky efforts to find someone to communicate with, Leslie reminisces. What he's thinking about, mostly, are all the men he's loved—or at least had. In a gorgeous picaresque touch worthy of Tennessee Williams, Wilson has his protagonist live in an apartment whose walls are full of autographs, placed there by the many young men he's brought here and had sex with. (Leslie would undoubtedly prefer the more romantic and euphemistic "made love with," but the play's raw candor prompts an observer to state the truth, however unpolite or unpleasant.) The wall feels like a funeral guest book that's been filled out while the body is still alive and breathing.
Leslie also conjures some painful memories of his mother, and from time to time he rallies to imagine himself at this or that party or bar, though the results are ultimately no less painful. Wilson's painting for us here the portrait of an isolated old queen at the end of her rope. Looking back on it from our perspective 40 years later, we see how daring, how open, and how compassionate the work is; what a shocker this must have been to any audience in those pre-Stonewall days! We can also see that it's the work of a young gay playwright trying to understand older confederates and acquaintances; Leslie Bright is distilled through the kind yet uncompromising eyes of the young, literally represented on stage alongside him in the persons of a Girl and Boy who observe, comment, and occasionally role-play the sad, circuitous thoughts inside Leslie's head.
Michael Lynch is grand as "Lady Bright," never resorting to camp or maudlin self-pity; it's a forthright, funny, self-aware performance. Melissa Center and Marlon Hurt are superb in the much smaller roles of the Girl and Boy; Hurt, in particular, is affecting and memorable as one of Leslie's earliest conquests, the handsome young man who was the first to sign his name to Leslie's wall.
It's valuable to have an opportunity to see this seminal work in a first-class production. If you're curious about how gay drama in particular and contemporary American drama in general developed and grew, you will not want to miss The Madness of Lady Bright.