I wonder: When was the last time you were shocked at the theater? I don’t mean by bad theater. (Bad theater is nothing new.) I mean honestly and truly shocked by a play whose ideas are so challenging and unsafe you’re shaken to the core.
Take Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? , which as everyone knows is about a happily married, successful architect who falls in love with a goat named Sylvia. It’s certainly an unusual idea (though not a new one). Mr. Albee clearly set out to shock us. He announced at the outset: “There’s one thing I’m doing in this play: testing the tolerance of the audience. Testing the limits of tolerance.”
And this is the thing: Mr. Albee has failed miserably. Everyone finds The Goat utterly harmless. So harmless that the Tony Awards committee beamed with delight and said to Mr. Albee, “Congratulations! Have the Tony Award for Best Play.”
When I reviewed The Goat , I wrote that I found it about as shocking as blueberry pie. In my view, Mr. Albee pulled his punches about the boundaries of love and sex, and has given us an obvious tease instead. Far from pushing the limits of theater-let alone creating anything revolutionary-the play thrives precisely because it’s essentially a traditional drawing-room drama with a predictable outcome. The goat is just the Other Woman, that’s all.
But let’s say I’ve got it wrong and Mr. Albee’s play really is shocking. Then the question is: How shocking do you have to be to truly test the limits of tolerance?
Tom Donaghy’s play about same-sex couples and gay parenting, Boys and Girls , is a marginal case in point. Very marginal. This fad of adopting children as if shopping for accessories will pass. At least, let’s hope it will. I’ve no doubt that Rosie O’Donnell makes the most perfect parent in all Christendom but, as Plato used to say, enough already! Then again, who wouldn’t wish single parent Wendy Wasserstein and her child lots of mazel ? But did we have to hear about Ms. Wasserstein’s pregnancy in such excruciating, scientific detail? Whether it’s a case of middle-aged single parenting by minor celebs, or the fashion of gay couples adopting adorable children, there must be bigger issues and a bigger world out there. In a word, they should all have their children in private and get on with it.
Mr. Donaghy doesn’t think so. Boys and Girls , directed by Gerald Gutierrez, which played at Playwrights Horizons, took its theme of ambivalent love and gay parenting earnestly. And yet, introduced with a postmodern version of “All You Need Is Love,” it could also be a cozy domestic comedy. Look at the core of its sketchy story:
The on-again, off-again male lovers, Reed and Jason, flirt with the idea of adopting a child. “For that extra love,” explains the needier Reed. His unreliable lover, Jason, is in massive denial about his drinking problem. Reed believes that raising a child would give their rocky relationship glue, hope, a purpose. Reed is just like other folk, the dramatist implies, like the straight folk. In such ways, from the soothing image of middle-class sitcom gays to rather sweet, innocent goats, no one need feel offended or challenged by anything.
Mr. Donaghy’s apparently settled lesbian lovers in urban domesticity, Bev and Shelly, have a 4-year-old boy, Georgie. (Just like other folk, like the straight, regular folk.) However, Bev would like Reed, her oldest friend, to move into their duplex and become a surrogate father. The child has been wondering where all the men are.
We learn that Reed once donated his sperm to Bev, but she didn’t use it. No wonder Reed is lovelorn. In any case, he wants a child with unreliable, butch Jason. Reed hints romantically to Jason when they’re in each other’s arms, “What if we did have a child?”
I must say I found that a funny line, but no one else seemed to. As far as I could tell, the audience was on its best behavior for fear of offending anyone. But here we have two gay guys spread-eagled on a bed, and one is saying to the other, “What if we did have a child?” To which the reply ought to have been, “Have it your way. You heard a seal bark.”
Does no one get the joke? (Does the playwright?) I thought, until I knew better, that the earnest Mr. Donaghy was really writing a sly parody of gay parenting. “When we have a kid,” Reed says later to Jason before they take a little “nap,” “we won’t be able to do this.”
True; but I’m afraid it all reminded me of Very Special Needs , Paul Rudnick’s satire of a gay couple, Timmy and Trent, and their adopted child Katinka, who wants to be renamed Tribeca. The issue to begin with is whether Timmy and Trent-exactly like Mr. Donaghy’s Jason and Reed-are ready to adopt.
“Of course we are!” says needy Timmy. “It’s all I’ve been dreaming about! I mean, all our friends, almost every gay couple, they all have babies.”
“Those are small dogs,” Trent replies dryly.
The politically incorrect Mr. Rudnick is satirizing gays who want to be like the straight folk-the married, bourgeois, 1.5-child-raising, “normal,” boring straight folk next-door. Mr. Donaghy, a disciple of David Mamet, has humor, but at heart his play couldn’t be more conventional. Just as Mametspeak- the fractured, disjointed sentences, the lurking, unspoken subtexts-no longer surprises or shocks us as much as it used to, so Mr. Donaghy’s Boys and Girls turns out to be safe and familiar in its own Mametean way.
The dramatist is at his best when suggesting the threat of danger in mundane circumstances (as his mentor is). But he slides merrily into daytime soap. “I’m a drunk, and that’s who you love!” Jason protests woozily to the stricken Reed. And the disappointed, angry dyke Shelly, having split up with Bev and their child, sobs over the phone to Mom that she wanted her life with Bev to be like the one her parents have together. Is she crazy? Is she thinking ? Who on earth wants to be their parents? Not me; not you; not in our right minds.
Sooner or later, the smug emotional need for “sameness” will be the death of us. Boys and Girls simplistically suggests that all you need is love. Maybe so; but what we need right now is to be challenged and shaken out of our everyday tiny minds into a brave new world of theatrical ideas. Mr. Donaghy’s shallow quartet of unhappy lovers could be more or less anyone, gay or straight, in a small world. The child in the play is unseen; we have no sense of the child’s reality.
These quite trendy characters promise the unorthodox, but they’re yearningly, droopily conformist. The final image of the evening has the old friends, Reed and Bev, naked in bed together on the verge of something. Years ago, they had an unlikely one-night stand. See? They’re really “normal” underneath. As they lay side by side in bed together, the silence between them grows tense. Could they? Should they? Will it last ? If so, will they have their very own child? Mr. Donaghy leaves the possibilities open, encouraging nice, comforting thoughts about them. They can live regular lives!
Meanwhile, we’ve learned that Jason’s hopped a flight with a new rich boyfriend, and they want to adopt their child. I don’t know about Shelly. I expect she’s gone sulking off home to Mom and that she’ll want a new child, too. It’ll cheer her up. Plus, Shelly already has a handy dad (who’s her own dad).
So it’s looking good. Let’s see … Shelly, Mom and Dad adopt an orphan named Tribeca and live in Greenwich, Conn., where Rosie O’Donnell and family become their best friends. Jason marries Trent in the South of France, where they adopt a little French girl they’ve named Shoshanna and are currently living in a villa in St. Tropez. The unlikely lovers Reed and Bev give birth to twins, Jason Jr. and Shel, who become extremely close to Wendy Wasserstein and child. Reed and Bev live in an 18,000-square-foot loft with a teeny-weeny maid’s room in Soho. And they all live happily ever after.
Take care now. It could happen to you .