Sunday, November 6, 2016

94. Review: HOMOS, OR EVERYONE IN AMERICA (seen November 3, 2016)

"Well, Maybe Not Everyone"

Stars range from 5-1.

Full disclosure: although I’ve met playwright Jordan Seavey only once (introduction and handshake), I’ve been friends with his mother, off and on, for at least 70 years; we grew up a couple of blocks from each other, went to the same Brooklyn schools from elementary through college, and reconnected several years ago through social media. So it was with fear and trembling that I attended her son’s new play at the Labyrinth Theater, where I desperately hoped to like it. I’m relieved to say I did, with some caveats, and that Jordan Seavey’s Homos, Or Everyone in America is, for the most part, funny, touching, thoughtful, and pertinent.
Michael Urie, Robin de Jesús. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Before Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band (1968), mainstream plays offering honest looks at the lives and loves of contemporary gay men were as rare as the Bhutan Glory butterfly. A half-century later, though, they “come not single spies, but in battalions.” As Seavey’s title indicates (with a nod to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America), his play is another valiant soldier in that ever-growing army, fighting to gain understanding and acceptance for freedom of sexual choice in a world of narrow-minded heteros.
Michael Urie, Robin de Jesús. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Homos is about two Brooklyn-based lovers, the struggling Writer (Michael Urie), an agnostic Jew, and the Academic (Robin De Jesús), a Latino Catholic, whose field is media studies (with a queer studies spin); the former lives in Williamsburg, the latter in Park Slope. (By the way: must we really have descriptors instead of names?) Their jobs, if they even have them, are never mentioned.

The play charts the lovers' relationship over the course of half a dozen years, from 2006-2011. Its story is segmented into brief episodes that jump back and forth in time; good luck trying to figure out the chronology while you're watching, although it's very clear in the script. For example, the first three scenes are: “The Lush Soap Store (part 1): February 16, 2011”; “The First Date (part 1): April 21, 2006”; “The First Talk about Monogamy: January 22, 2007.” And so on. Director Mike Donahue’s production eschews any informational indicators.

Making the chronology even vaguer is the neutrality of designer Dane Laffrey’s environment, which turns the intimate venue into a bland, scenery-less space; the audience surrounds it on unpainted wooden bleachers placed around an acting area covered by off-white carpeting. (I was seated behind a pillar that completely hid three or four scenes from view.) The scenes flow swiftly, with just Scott Zielinski’s lighting to indicate the passage of time; although it’s often hard to tell when or where the action is occurring in specific scenes, Seavey skillfully weaves the experience together in a way that preserves the overall arc of the dramatic developments.
Aaron Costa Ganis, Michael Urie, Robin de Jesús. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Aside from the homosexual preoccupations of the characters, there’s nothing particularly unusual in Seavey’s boy-meets-boy, boy-loses-boy, boy-gets-boy plot (which has the air of being autobiographical), in which two other characters also appear: Laila (Stacey Sargeant), a friendly salesperson in a soap shop, and the good-looking Dan (Aaron Costa Ganis), the fly in the romantic ointment who contributes to the central characters’ breakup.

The Writer and the Academic serve as vehicles for Seavey to touch on many of the personal, social, and political issues affecting gay men during the years covered. Like so many plays and films about minorities in which identity politics take precedence over life’s other travails, Homos isn’t simply about a love affair (incisively drawn as it is) in which the characters just happen to be gay; it’s a play about two men whose gayness drives the narrative and colors everything they say and do. 
Robin de Jesús, Michael Urie, Aaron Costa Ganis. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Over the course of an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, Seavey touches on--if only on the surface--numerous topics, including sexual monogamy, Hasidic slumlords, threesomes, poppers and anal sex, drinking, marriage equality, Ed Koch’s alleged gayness, racism, gay misogyny, gentrification, being closeted vs. uncloseted, the Iraq war, and the ways in which social media, from Friendster through Myspace to Facebook, have affected society.

One way to understand the play’s time frame, in fact, is through its social media references, although they do little to clarify the mixed-up chronology. Meanwhile, threading its way elliptically through the action is the painful result of a homophobic hate crime. A principle contribution of Homos is how well it encapsulates those issues of deepest concern to the gay "community" (a word that is itself controversial) during the years on which it focuses.
Stacey Sargeant, Michael Urie. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Helping greatly to make the essentially familiar situations theatrically viable is Seavey’s distinctive gift for capturing the natural flow of conversation (much of it comically profane), with unfinished sentences broken into brief phrases that leave thoughts incompletely expressed, or that weave in and out in fragmented shards with the similarly splintered sentences of someone else. These provide the actors with wonderfully performative, often witty, material that they handle deftly in well-orchestrated scenes of rat-a-tat-tat, My Girl Friday-like repartee.

Each performance is sharply etched and magnetic, maintaining its authenticity despite the proximity of the actors to the audience. Director Donahue rarely lets the energy flag but he places too much emphasis on constant physical activity--rolling about, hugging, cuddling, kissing, crouching, jumping, snuggling together on the ground--almost as if he's compensating for the lack of furniture to play on and around. 
Michael Urie, Robin de Jesus. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Yes, I have caveats about Homos, or Everyone in America, but I’m also happy to report that Jordan Seavey's mom should be very proud to have so talented a playwright for her son.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Labyrinth Theater
155 Bank St., NYC
Through November 27




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