Ten That Brought Laughs, Tears

Not the best gay year on stage, but insight, intelligence, wit burst through

PINAFORE • Fringe Festival

Mark Savage’s delightfully campy musical about an all-gay navy was a brilliantly written send-up of all things Gilbert & Sullivan. The script’s sharp wit and the cast’s thrilling voices combined for one of the year’s most infectious two hours of fun. With a gorgeous falsetto and spot-on comedic timing, R. Christofer Sands, in luscious drag, gave a fabulously inspired performance that ranks as one of the year’s most memorable.

Taking a look back at the year in gay theater is both a struggle and a delight. It’s a tough story to write because so many of the gay works that showed up on New York stages this year were either lacking in intelligence (“Sleeping With Straight Men,” “One Hit Wonder”), sloppy (“My Big Gay Italian Wedding,” “Daddy Kathryn”) or, as in the case of “Sacrifice to Eros,” overwrought.

This past year was a milestone for gay people on television and, of course, also in the real world, thanks to the Supreme Court and courts in Massachusetts and Canada. But with few exceptions, gay writers, actors, and themes failed to soar to theatrical heights in 2003.

Shows reflecting gay lives were plentiful but not always worthwhile. But there was a solid core of shows that reflected insight, intelligence, and wit and the list of top ten productions below made me laugh, cry, and––call me corny––proud to be gay. Looking at the talented actors, writers, composers, directors, and designers on this list helps me recognize the significant opportunities for a renaissance in meaningful, entertaining gay theater.

There were of course gay shows I missed this year. That’s one of the nice things about theater in New York, but one of the pitfalls of being a critic here––options, options, options. But of those that I saw, these were the ones that made theatergoing in New York a pleasure, and made being gay a joy. The first two listed tied for first place by my reckoning.

WTC VIEW

New York International Fringe Festival

This extraordinarily sensitive and surprisingly funny show was one of the two best gay plays of the year. Written by film director Brian Sloane (“I Think I Do”), this moving snapshot of a gay man coping with a breakup while looking for a roommate in the days immediately following 9/11 was mesmerizing from start to finish, thanks in part to a perfectly tuned performance by Michael Urie in the lead. An extended monologue describing one man’s escape from the Twin Towers was one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen on stage since “Angels in America” debuted ten years ago. Here’s hoping this play gets the wider audience it deserves sometime soon.

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AVENUE Q

Vineyard Theatre/Golden Theatre

Easily the most innovative, creative and gay-friendly show to hit Broadway in years, “Avenue Q” is a rarity: a show that appeals to hipsters, their parents, and even the select 13-year-old. Thanks to charming, hummable music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, a hysterical book by Jeff Whitty, and a talented cast led by openly gay puppeteer and charm-master John Tartaglia, this show about a group of singing puppets and their human neighbors won over audiences with its warmth, edgy humor, and affectionate embrace of diversity. If only everyone lived on Avenue Q.

THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME

Vineyard Theatre

Lesbian playwright Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”) returned to New York with a lyrical story about a dysfunctional family’s holiday drive to grandma’s house. Vogel mined this territory with sensitivity and humor, giving her gay male character a monologue of remarkable sadness and beauty. Basil Twist’s poetic Asian-inspired puppetry was sublime. My only quibble—the cornball interpretive dance was embarrassingly out of place.

THE NUCLEAR FAMILY

The Belt

This hysterically funny trio of expert improvisers, including the openly gay Jimmy Bennett and Stephen Guarino, knows that it takes much more than a wig and a catchy tune to make it funny. That’s why every Friday and Saturday they did cartwheels, made out, and basically bounced off the walls to ensure their bitchy gay teens, evil curmudgeons, and numbskull moms delivered a night of unbridled, unscripted laughs.

LYPSINKA! AS I LAY LIP-SYNCHING!

Minetta Lane Theater

Lypsinka (aka John Epperson), the world’s foremost lip-synch expert, revives her best material in this ode to all things noir. Impeccable timing and a sense of humor to send shivers down the spine of Joan Crawford’s ghost make Lypsinka a national gay treasure. I still laugh like a little girl every time she barks “Barbara, please!” into her makeshift phone.

I AM MY OWN WIFE

Playwright’s Horizons/Lyceum Theatre

Jefferson Mays is stunning as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the German transvestite whose complicated life under the Nazis is the subject of Dough Wright’s brilliantly written one-man show. Alone on stage dressed in nothing more than a simple black dress and pearls, Mays channels some 40 characters to bring this unique story to life. Now that the show has moved to Broadway, Tony should shine brightly on the talented and gay-friendly––but straight––Mays.

TABOO

Plymouth Theater

Okay, so it looks like Rosie O’Donnell’s theatrical baby might not make it past January. But who cares what finicky tourists think? This show, despite its faults, has the gifted Euan Morton and the effervescent Boy George at the helm. Call me a spoiled child of the 80s, but I had a totally awesome time at this creative, showy New Wave spectacle.

WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

Playwright’s Horizons

Even when openly gay playwright Christopher Shinn comes up short, as he did in this play about a group of friends staying at a cabin in the woods, his deft handling of the subtleties of language still demonstrates why he’s one of the most talented playwrights working today. If the lead character, who virtually screamed “leather bear,” had actually been gay, perhaps this sensitive play would have clicked. Shinn’s “Where Do We Live,” to be produced at the Vineyard, promises to be one of the highlights of 2004.

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