An extraordinary sign of the times, pointed out to me by The Group's Joe Watts: five plays currently running in Houston reflect a gay conceit and an AIDS concern. Angels in America at the Alley, The Destiny of Me at Theater LaB, The Old Boy at Actors Theatre and the two that are the subject of this review: Waiting for a Kiss at Main Street Theater and Soul Survivor, presented by The Group (Theatre Workshop) at Curtains.
It's hard not to validate the making of art out of an era's urgencies when the playwrights are the brazenly spectacular Tony Kushner (Angels) and the brazenly righteous Larry Kramer (Destiny). If Kramer is the megaphone, speaking out on what he feels needs to be heard, Kushner is the clarion, trumpeting a sublime call. Both stances have precedence in the theater and remain fundamentally necessary. And if co-opters such as A.R. Gurney (Boy) don't quite know how to fit well-meaning impulses into their oeuvre, at least they take on the issues.
So in some cases there may be special circumstances when assessing a work. Given mainstream attitudes, it makes a certain sense that many plays about homosexuality and AIDS -- such as, for example, Waiting for a Kiss and Soul Survivor -- have the feel of consciousness-raising, if not agitprop. They are, to the exclusion of almost all else, about agendas; families, work, pleasure and other complications are employed in the service of making points (if they're mentioned at all).
And with both gay-bashing and AIDS rampant, to desire a more rounded or artful or ambitious text can seem insensitive. Survivor playwright Anthony Bruno recently died from AIDS. Kiss author Tim Powers similarly succumbed in 1991. That both their plays are romantic comedies is refreshing. That both plays are fantasies is ironic.
To call them slight may be unmindful, but slight they are. For all their inherent politics, they're modest love stories that, set against the backdrop of AIDS, prompt flights of fancy. In Waiting for a Kiss, a man who loses his lover to AIDS finds the will to live through first concocting then visiting Tammyland, a make-believe world drawn from the Debbie Reynolds' Tammy movies. In Soul Survivor, another AIDS-stricken lover returns from Heaven to check out his partner's tentative new relationship. Both plays offset haunting loss with campy humor, but both plays cover what has now become familiar territory. Both are fun, but both are minor. Both, in fact, benefit from the dimension-adding productions they're given.
Survivor attempts less than Kiss and is the better for it, since it doesn't make promises it can't keep. In Act One, the two protagonists, Jerry and Mark, have an awkwardly cute date at Jerry's apartment. "I like to wear ties," Jerry replies to Mark's compliment about his neckwear. "And I like to wear leather." They eventually have sex of the playful domination sort; Mark likes to say yes, sir! almost as much as he likes Jerry's black leather chaps.
In the second scene, thoughts of Brian -- Jerry's former lover who died from AIDS -- mute the afterglow. In Act Two, three months later, Brian appears on-stage as a beneficent spirit, but becomes jealous of Mark. Mark can't see Brian, which leads to standard miscommunications and tricks before the equally standard happy-sad ending.
"And what does this make me, Topper?" Jerry demands of Brian, in one of playwright Bruno's snappier lines. But just as many are stale: "Living together?" Brian spouts. "Over my dead body!" Only occasionally -- as when Jerry mistakenly assumes that when Mark asks him how he's doing, he's wondering if he's been tested -- does the writing become acute. Too often the insights are along the lines of how AIDS scares people off. Emotions are relegated to such banalities as, "For the first time in a long time I'm feeling something." Even the play on words in the title is tired.
But the actors in The Group overcome the triteness. Hunter Dutton is a bundle of insistent nerves as Mark, giving him an awkward body language that speaks volumes. Colin T. McLetchie's Brian, piqued like a pouty miss when accosting the "trollop" Mark, takes over the Act Two stage with such a confident air that he enables Paul Nicely, as Jerry, to locate the textures he lacks in Act One.
From the way he has one character surreptitiously smell another's boots to how he makes the curtain calls tweak Angels in America, director Joe Watts adds satisfying puckishness to the action. The Twilight Zone theme is heard at Brian's arrival; when the ghost wants some loving, he rides the sofa. Jerry and Mark's sex scene, while graphic, sings the body electric in an assertive, affectionate way. Watts especially enhances Bruno's hackneyed climax.
Waiting for a Kiss is less satisfying, though not through faults in the play's execution. Kent Johnson is outstanding as Perkins, the bereaved creator of Tammyland. In general, the rest of the ensemble also does fine work, particularly Rodney Walsworth, in dual roles as Bobby, a macho construction boss, and Speedo, a bashful slow-wit who wants to come out. Marcy Bannor is also quite fine as Perkins' desperate, stalwart co-worker and as the blithe, indestructible housekeeper in Tammyland. And director Patti Bean ably revels in pillow talk, making the fantasy sequences properly tongue-in-cheek and raising the emotional stakes in just the right places.
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But while the performers do their job, the text fails in its. Though bounding with wit ("Did you ever make up a friend?" someone asks. Response: "Like with lipstick?") and though the central premise -- a goofily quaint wonderland in a world that's become a graveyard -- is not only charming but resonant, the metaphor simply isn't thought out. In Tammyland, a nasty, unidentified creature called "The Lonely One" wreaks havoc by killing people; the parallel to AIDS is as underdeveloped as it is obvious. Tammy, an ugly duckling schoolgirl at the center of Tammyland, is a soul mate to her new friend Perkins, but we're not told what to make of this. We're also supposed to make something of the fact that they're both orphans, though exactly what I don't know. Some characters are irrelevant, while others, set up as important, are dropped. Motifs run amuck. The story even stops in its tracks for a lounge act. And if you think about it, the plot -- learning how to "go on" -- is really one big cliche.
In these two shows, gaiety comes from what's on the stage more than from what's in the texts.
Soul Survivor plays through July 1 at Curtains Theater, 3722 Washington Avenue, 522-2204.
Waiting for a Kiss plays through July 1 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.