Let’s call it “Gays of Our Lives.” With the same-sex marriage debate continuing to simmer, the time seems right to recap the evolution over the past century of gay culture, politics and relationships in America. And who better to take on that ethnographic assignment than Terrence McNally, who dealt with some of the key issues in the lives of contemporary gay men in plays like “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.” But worthy intentions, decent actors and some funny one-liners are not enough to instill theatrical backbone or emotional development into this grab-bag of stereotype-laden vignettes, recycled from countless gay-themed indie movies and queer lit.
There might be an illuminating play to be written about the gay generation gap — the uncomprehending divide between those who lived through the secrecy and subterfuge of the pre-Stonewall era and the younger ones who came out post-gay rights, when cultural visibility had undergone a major shift. Likewise, the distinctions between pre- and post-AIDS gay men: those who partied through the 1970s and then lived through the decimation of the ’80s and those too young to know anything but the safer-sex mandate.
But while McNally touches on those aspects of gay life and more, “Some Men” is not that play. As illustrated by his pedestrian book for “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” the playwright is not a great documentarian. Writers like Edmund White and John Rechy years ago provided this kind of cultural commentary with more insight and analysis in both fiction and essay forms, while novels like Allan Gurganus’ “Plays Well With Others” and Ethan Mordden’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” did it far more entertainingly.
“Some Men” might have nostalgia value for gay men over a certain age — and it’s not insignificant that McNally’s observations of the older characters are the most poignant — but generally, it plays like a primer for folks with little or no direct experience of the kind of lives being explored.
Regardless of the warmth and wit of actor David Greenspan, does anyone at this point really need another drag queen doing “Over the Rainbow” while snarky show queens get misty-eyed on their bar stools the night Judy died? Ditto, despite Michael McElroy’s charismatic embodiment of a 1930s Harlem Renaissance nightclub figure and his dreamy rendition of “Ten Cents a Dance,” that period and its gay historical context were more resourcefully excavated in films like “Looking for Langston” and “Brother to Brother.” The problem here is that irrespective of the actors’ efforts, every episode feels not only familiar but superficial and synthetic.
There’s an army funeral at which a wounded soldier meets his dead lover’s father; a late-’60s tryst between a sweet hustler studying Milton and a married family man struggling to emerge from the closet; a rich banker’s son and his Irish chauffeur lover cavorting on a beach in 1920s East Hampton; that pantheon of misrepresentation, the Internet chatroom, in which faceless guys with user-names like Top Dog and Buffed in Chelsea look for quick hook-ups or Madonna concert tickets; the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s during the height of the crisis; gay dads swapping baby-couture tips; and of course the obligatory trip down memory lane to the voracious cruising at the Baths, circa 1975.
McNally frames these loosely linked, non-chronological New York scenes with a contemporary gay wedding at the Waldorf-Astoria and peppers nods to the marriage debate throughout the play. When he finally gets around to addressing it directly, it’s in the didactic context of group therapy, with one member about to get hitched while struggling with commitment issues.
Shot through with melancholy notes of loss, denial and the conflict between the desire for love and sex, the play has been reworked some since premiering last May in Philadelphia, eliminating the female characters to tighten the focus on the men’s experience. “We live in these little personal boxes and we break free only to find ourselves in a bigger box,” says one character. But mostly, McNally has isolated them all in an uninteresting vacuum. Neither the gay ghetto nor the broader society into which the characters struggle to fit feel authentic.
Given the limitations of playing characters whose arc rarely extends beyond an individual scene, there’s some nice work from the actors, notably self-effacing Don Amendolia and ultra-dry Greenspan as the gay elders (described as “our very own Dead Sea Scrolls” by a young queer theorist). Providing a hint of a through-line in the choppy play, Kelly AuCoin makes an understated, real character of the married man who accepts his sexuality and finds emotional fulfillment with Romain Fruge’s sensitive hunk. Frederick Weller is moving as the grieving soldier and wryly cartoonish as various sexual predators.
But there’s little fluidity or depth in the sentimental writing and director Trip Cullman doesn’t do much to compensate. Nor is there any attempt to evoke period beyond the snatches of era-defining music (“Crimson and Clover,” David Bowie, the Smiths, the Cure) that mark the transitions.
Mark Wendland’s unadorned set — a pristine white function room with straight-back chairs, a piano and twin chandeliers that retreat discreetly into the flies — opts for stylish minimalism, but the most striking design element is Kevin Adams’ lighting. After his ravishing work on “Spring Awakening,” Adams again shows dynamic use of color and a subtle ability to manipulate mood, something that’s missing elsewhere.