Call a play “The Homosexuals,” have it span the past decade, address the attitudes and sexual entanglements within a group of gay friends, and take up the exceedingly tough challenge of telling the tale chronologically backward, and it sure seems like up-and-coming Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins is striving for no less than an era-defining work. Substantive but also slippery, funny and sexy but also troubling, “The Homosexuals” ends up a bit like the lives of the characters it depicts — filled with hope, mixed with cynicism, and ultimately acknowledging that the effort itself is perhaps paramount to the full realization of one’s ambitions.
It’s nearly impossible not to think of Mart Crowley’s 1968 play “The Boys in the Band” while watching “The Homosexuals.” And that’s not just because of its depiction of a group of gay professionals tied to their times, but also because of its barrage of campy, clever one-liners and its exploration of internalized homophobia. If the terrifically witty dialogue makes the show vibrant even when it gets too talky, it’s the latter component that’s most surprising and provocative. Dawkins lays the claim — consciously or not — that 40 years after “Boys in the Band,” a gay protagonist can still fairly and honestly be portrayed with a significant streak of self-loathing to overcome, and an emotional neediness that might never be sated.
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The play begins in 2010, with 29-year-old Evan (Patrick Andrews) breaking up with his boyfriend Peter (Scott Bradley), an older, flamboyant and ever-quippy theater director whose efforts not to make a scene come off very much like a scene. The play then moves backward, two years at a time, following Evan’s relationships with the group of friends who have largely defined his life, and who, in the final (and therefore earliest) scene, set in 2000, embraced him into their coterie the day he arrived in Chicago, fleeing small-town Iowa, prejudiced parents and the closet.
This is all very episodic by nature, with Dawkins ensuring that certain key themes of gay life become the focus of conversation in different scenes, each of which introduces another of Evan’s friends and peels away layers of Evan’s maturity.
There’s the issue of friendship versus romance, and particularly the possibility of friendship after romance; living with HIV (British Mark, played by Benjamin Sprunger, is positive); and the unrequited love of a friend — all of Evan’s friends adore him, but none so much as the nebbishy and always ignored Michael (Stephen Cone, another key member of this excellent ensemble).
As we move further into the past, aided by elegantly staged transitions from director Bonnie Metzgar, we glimpse clear signs of Evan’s internalized bigotry, leading to his being chided by the one woman in the group (played deliciously by Elizabeth Ledo), who has given up a tenure-track job to teach inner-city kids in a choice that epitomizes Dawkins’ view of idealism’s double-edged sword.
Some of the writer’s intentions remain elusive. As if the structure itself weren’t challenging enough, he takes Evan on a path that is neither transparent nor linear. As we look back to contemplate the character’s growth, what emerges is a complex picture of a young man grasping at identity in an age that’s post-Stonewall, post-Act Up and post-AZT cocktails.
Andrews, who can sometimes seem a cipher, has a very tough challenge. While the part demands a bit more dynamism, the talented actor captures above all a person who wants badly to be a responsible, loyal friend and grown-up, but finds that so much in life doesn’t end up the way you intend.