The Best of Queer Fringe

Dan Hodapp and Sean Duggan as an undercover cop and former Senator Larry Craig in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. | DIXIE SHERIDAN

The 16th annual New York Fringe Festival presents 187 offerings, with performances all over the place in terms of subject, substance, and quality. Here’s our take on a handful of shows with an LGBT slant that Gay City News considers hits rather than misses.

TAIL! SPIN!

The Kraine Theater

85 E. Fourth St., btwn. Second Ave. & the Bowery

Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 10:30 p.m.

“Tail! Spin!” was the only FringeNYC show to sell out its entire run before the fest began –– and with good reason. While the play’s stars –– Mo Rocca (“The Daily Show”), Rachel Dratch (“SNL”), and Sean Dugan (“Smash”) –– are a huge draw, it’s the subject matter that’s simply irresistible.

The hour-long play offers a sly take on hypocritical, libido-pumped politicos (labeled with helpful supertitles), putting them in their place. Directed by Dan Knechtges (“Lysistrata Jones”), the piece is chock full of dirty exchanges, firm denials, and weepy confessions. But there’s a delicious twist.

While some shows are merely ripped from the headlines, this one is ripped from the transcripts. Playwright Mario Correa has scoured reams of steamy emails, texts, and other written accounts of political scandals, hand-picked the juiciest quotes, and spliced them into a riot of titillating mockery — all delivered by a quintet of first-rate comedians playing multiple roles.

First up is Idaho Senator Larry “Wide-Stance” Craig, played with devilish flair by Dugan. Craig’s career, you may recall, hit the skids after he was nabbed playing footsie in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. “I am not gay,” he insisted, standing by his record of squelching gay rights. His only regret? Pleading guilty.

And who can forget Representative Mark Foley (Dan Hodapp), champion of new laws to protect children from sexual predators. Numerous allegations surfaced of him sending salacious IMs to underage male pages — you know, comparing JO techniques and asking about dick size.

Then there’s Congressman Anthony Wiener’s Twitter-pic scandal, tailor-made for parody. Nate Smith (“30 Rock”) does a spot-on interpretation of the arrogant Weiner, who claimed his account was hacked and the pic of his privates Photoshopped and insisted he would not step down. Days later, he resigned.

Rocca does a mean take on former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who went AWOL for days, finally admitting to a tryst with an Argentine babe. During his confessional speech, his wife was conspicuously absent from his side.

Mrs. Sanford’s scarceness notwithstanding, these errant men would largely be nothing without their women, and the sardonic Dratch rises to the challenge, playing sundry wives, flings, beards, and Barbara Walters. She injects her delivery with trademark groans and grimaces, adding just the right note of gleeful absurdity to the proceedings.

But once the laughs and applause ended and we all filed out of the theater, I was left feeling a little sullied. And sad.

Jonathan Gibson (bottom) and Joe Briggs in Chris Phillips’ “Pieces.” | RICK SIMONE

PIECES

Cherry Lane Theatre

38 Commerce St., btwn. Bedford St. & Barrow St.

Aug. 15 at 6:30 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 8 p.m.

If Larry Kramer wrote an episode of “Law & Order” inspired by the Andrew Cunanan murder of Gianni Versace, it might be something like “Pieces,” the new play by Chris Phillips. Except that it would have to air on late-night cable due to nasty language, cocaine snorting, and butt-fucking.

On one level, “Pieces” is a scintillating crime yarn. An openly gay Hollywood mega-mogul is brutally hacked to pieces, and the obvious suspect is Shane (Chris Salvatore), a cute but disturbed boytoy who hung out at the mogul’s mansion. Despite Shane’s confession, public defender Rory Dennis (a superb Jonathan Gibson) spars with the district attorney (Nina Millin), threatening to take the case to trial and uncover the truth. Complicating matters are Jonathan (Paolo Andino), an A-List “red-carpet faggot” who may be culpable in the murder, and Nick (Joe Briggs), the pain-in-the-ass journo from New York.

But all that’s just pretext. “Pieces” is actually a sociopolitical study that serves as an indictment of the so-called gay community –– and perhaps a wake-up call. Rory is a self-loathing queer nerd who feels betrayed by his own kind because of rampant body fascism, ageism, and a host of other bitchy biases. Outraged, he rejects the lavender party line. “I never drank the gay marriage Kool-Aid,” he sniffs.

Just like the battered corpse, the gay community is fragmenting into pieces, and both Rory and Shane are breaking down as well. Is Shane a “psycho-fag partyboy,” an “opportunistic little twink,” or a victim of gay-on-gay bullying? Consider the play’s sobering tagline: “It doesn’t always get better.”

And just like the dogged, vitriolic Larry Kramer, whom Philips credits as an inspiration, “Pieces” drives home its messages with a sledgehammer.

Despite the play being overcomplicated and preachy, director Brian Zimmer extracts true emotive resonance, thanks in part to a terrific cast that makes these bafflingly complex, damaged souls appealing. It’s a poignantly challenging, vibrant piece of theater that, with several tweaks, deserves to have a life in New York beyond the Fringe.

HAVE I GOT A GIRL FOR YOU

La MaMa 74A E. Fourth St., btwn. Second Ave. & the Bowery

Aug. 16 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 9:30 p.m.; Aug. 25 at noon

Gay musical theater actor Josh Mesnik (“Jewtopia”) wrote “Have I Got a Girl For You” in part because he had a funny, fabulous life-based story to tell. After finding himself in New York drowning in bills and booze, he went to rehab and landed a job in Florida running a huge female escort agency.

Turns out his detailed knowledge of classic films and theater comes in handy in the pay-for-pleasure biz. Snippets of show tunes and witty theater references abound. Surely the play’s title is lifted from the song in Sondheim’s “Company.”

Yet Josh, who plays himself, wasn’t satisfied in simply crafting a comic farce, detailing the absurd ins and outs of keeping his girls booked with eight to ten needy clients a day. He actually managed to concoct a thriller with a heart-pounding through-line about plotting to start up a rival escort agency, knocking his crabby boss (Danielle Di Vecchio from “The Sopranos”) for a loop. In other words, this self-effacing second-fiddle pulls off a stunt worthy of Eve Harrington in “All About Eve.

Occasionally Josh addresses the audience, explaining legalities (paying for time is legal, talk of sex is a crime), rate structure (roughly $300 to $500 an hour), the cut (the house gets 40 percent), the Yelp-like website where clients rate the girls (the Erotic Review), and handy acronyms (BDE=back door entry).

Kim Morgan Dean is a marvel at playing a bevy of call girls, and Jon Seymour gamely handles all the johns as well as the boss’ clueless husband.

The production is enhanced by Sara Sahin’s crisply paced, inventive staging, which often finds two characters in different locales talking on phones while standing alongside one another. Special credit for sound design goes to Josh Hobbs, whose well-timed cell phone tones punch up the proceedings.

Ryan Kipp in “Redlight.” | JENNIFER E. KOLTUN

REDLIGHT

The White Box at 440 Studios

440 Lafayette St., btwn. Astor Pl. & E. Fourth St.

Aug. 15 at 4 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 9:30 p.m.

Aug. 18 at 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 25 at 5 p.m.; Aug. 26 at 4 p.m.

If you come to see the inventively engaging “REDlight,” which offers a peek inside the seamy VIP rooms of a notorious gay strip club, with the aim of gleefully chowing down on beefcake, you’ll be disappointed. This is no gay parody of “Magic Mike.”

Rather, this solo show, written and performed by Ryan Kipp, offers an unblinking, intentionally fractured portrait of one man’s meditation on masculinity, desire, and grief as he reconciles memories of an awful childhood.

Under the direction of Jennifer Tuttle and Marc Santa Maria, with dynamic choreography by Carol Johnson, this is one of the more heartfelt, unnervingly affecting pieces you’re likely to see at the Fringe this year.

Kipp presents loosely connected vignettes drawn from real life working as “the resident ginger” at a gay strip joint, selling the illusion of fantasy and desire. At the onset, he admits he likes men — their power, grace, and beauty — and in the next breath claims he’s straight with a beautiful wife. Remarkably, our skepticism melts away as he works hard to convince us why this just might make sense.

With only a trunkful of costumes, the exuberant Kipp morphs into a range of personas. He’s a cocky stripper welcoming a hairy newbie with a hygiene issue (that newbie was him). He’s a boy on a fishing trip with his dad, hungry for approval. He’s a strip-club patron, irate that Ryan is straight and refuses to find him desirable in the one place he expects (and pays) to be desired. “I don’t want you here,” the patron yells at Ryan.

Later, he’s a jarhead in the military mourning the loss of his secret boyfriend, devastated that he must lie to his buddies, and referring to Alex as Alice. Toward the end, he plays his mother, recounting a tragic incident involving his drunken dad that feels like a punch to the gut.

The piece is energized by projected images of male nudity, bathed in red light, and of his boyhood. A pulsating soundtrack blasts pop tunes from Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and 50 Cent.

Sure, this piece is rough around the edges. The only major flaw is the climax, which comes early (after about 40 minutes) and awkwardly, muffling the impact of the final reveal.

MAHMOUD

Jimmy's No. 43

43 East Seventh St., btwn Second & Third Aves.

Aug. 17 at 7:15 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 5:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at 5 p.m.; Aug.25 at 7 p.m.

This solo show from Pandemic Theatre comes with a pedigree, winning multiple awards at the 2012 Fringe Fest in Toronto. But pedigrees raise expectations, and although this richly textured “Mahmoud,” written and performed by Iranian actress Tara Grammy, has much to recommend it, the piece falls a bit short.

The titular Mahmoud is an engineer from Tehran who came to Toronto with the promise of a better life and ended up driving a taxi for 25 years. His wife, whom he adores, calls on his cell phone “500 times a day.” He is often derided as an Arab about to commit jihad.

There’s also Tara, an Iranian-Canadian teen who aspires to be an actor despite the expectation that Iranian girls in the West will become doctors. She also aims to unleash her inner bombshell with a couple of bottles of Nair and blonde hair dye.

We also meet Emanuelos, a swishy gay Spaniard who spritzes Dolce & Gabbana cologne on passing shoppers. He is dating a gorgeous Iranian man and they hope to marry, but when the boyfriend goes back to Iran to visit his family, plans go horribly awry.

Toward the end of this bittersweet play, directed by Tom Arthur Davis (also the co-writer), the characters’ lives collide in unexpected ways, revealing difficult truths.

In this type of solo endeavor, accent and character delineation are key, and Grammy, who has a way with the arched eyebrow, is generally skilled at both. Her choice to interact with the audience forges an intimate connection.

Yet the play’s real power lies in its edgy content, shining a light on the negative labels assigned to Middle Easterners and, by extension, all immigrants. It strives to humanize these stereotypes without idealizing them.

For my tastes, however, Grammy’s characterizations are too pronounced, bordering on caricature. I found the shrill, ultra-flamboyant Emanuelos grating and offensive — not what you want in a show about erasing stereotypes. Some transitions were choppy, and at times her delivery seemed labored.

To be fair, Grammy is stuck with a lousy venue, wedged in the back room of an East Village basement bar with no air conditioning and a stage area hardly bigger than the backseat of a taxi. She deserves better than this.

FRINGENYC | Various downtown venues | Through Aug. 26 | $15 to $18; ticketweb.com or 866-468-7619 | Complete schedule at fringenyc.org or FringeCentral, 1 E. Eighth St. at Fifth Ave.

 

 

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