After “Straight-Jacket” and now “The Crumple Zone,” New York City’s Gay Pride Day has a lot to answer for. Producers have overloaded the past two weeks surrounding the holiday with plays with homosexual themes, sorely testing the legit truism that if it’s gay, they will come. Richard Day’s “Straight-Jacket” overreaches by equating homophobia with the political witch hunt of the 1950s while Buddy Thomas’ “The Crumple Zone” appears to have no ambitions except as an audition for the kind of banal, dippily sentimental TV sitcoms that “Seinfeld” retired a decade ago. If Thomas has anything to say here, it’s that gays can be as tiresome as straights.
Where have we seen these characters before? Terry (Mario Cantone) is the wise-cracking but lonely guy who pines for the beautiful and perfectly boring Buck (Gerald Downey), who is in love with the maniacally unemployed actor Alex (Paul Pecorino), who is carrying on a long-distance relationship with a traveling chorus boy named Matt (Paul Pecorino), who doesn’t show up until the beginning of act two when Alex and Buck are lovers but pretend for the sake of Matt’s Christmas holiday to be merely good buddies, with Buck posing as Terry’s boyfriend. A real stud named Roger (Steve Mateo) shows up twice during the course of the action, his major function being to take off his clothes. (The Roger character should be named Buck and vice versa, but never mind.)
Connoisseurs of the genre will note that Mateo and Ron Mathews from the aforementioned “Straight-Jacket” appear to have nearly identical gym regimens. For those wanting their money’s worth, Mathews spends much more stage time unencumbered by shirt and trousers.
Dawn Robyn Petrlik’s set design of Terry’s Staten Island apartment could use a gay interior decorator under the age of 50. There are posters on the walls of Barbra Streisand, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Yes, and Terry’s bedroom door bears a shiny blue star. The gay-icon humor is a tad more obscure: “You appeared out of nowhere like Elizabeth Montgomery!” cries Terry. Otherwise, he’s into paraphrasing jokes that were much funnier on their original tour of the gay grapevine 30 years ago, such as, “I like my alcohol the way I like my men: strong and cheap.”
Thomas gives each of his characters at least one big moment, which Jason Moore directs as show-stoppers that succeed all too well in that regard. They said it couldn’t be done, but these five actors will make you appreciate Sean Hayes’ subtle variations on the camp theme in “Will & Grace.”
In TV sitcoms of yore, there used to be the obligatory bullshit moment that came within the episode’s last five minutes. That moment in “The Crumple Zone” is delivered right on schedule when Terry describes seeing simulated car crashes in which the test dummies were protected by the car’s crumple zone. When another character complains that Terry is getting a little long-winded here, he screams back, “I’m going for the metaphor! Stay with me,” saying that it is time for everybody “to get out of the car.” Or, perhaps, the theater. It is not the play’s worst moment; 15 minutes earlier someone’s prematurely unwrapped Christmas present (a teddy bear) provides the evening’s big revelation. Didn’t they use that one on “The Partridge Family”?