Gay Play Asks: What Makes a Play Gay?

In Jonathan Tolins’ new play, The Last Sunday in June , several gay guys meet in a Christopher Street apartment during the Gay Pride parade. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The guys-including the apparently contented couple who own the apartment but are moving to the burbs, a young actor who’s recently come out, a middle-aged manager of opera singers, a sardonic showbiz journalist, a writer of a bad coming-of-age gay sex novel and a hunk with brains (sort of)-will talk about being gay . And as they do so-you know it!-stuff will happen. The unexpected visitor, the nasty revelation, the confessional confrontation …. But Mr. Tolins has anticipated our sense of déjà vu all over again.

Early in the action, Joe, the actor, is looking out the window at the parade below, fancying a shirtless guy in overalls. “Homo on the range,” Michael, one of the hosts, comments amusingly. “He’s so cute!” adds Joe. “He’s just like a real farm boy who’s been to an electrolysist.”

“Wait!” Charles, the opera queen, will protest. “Look at you, sitting there in the window. You look like you’re in a play …. “

“It could be a gay play,” he adds. “About gays on Gay Pride Day.”

“Just what we need,” groans Michael. “Another gay play.”

“Don’t knock gay theater,” Charles replies. “It’s very important historically. It used to be the only way we could see ourselves.”

“Well, now we’re ‘Must-See TV,’ so get over it,” argues Brad, the journalist.

“Exactly,” Tom, Michael’s partner, concludes. “If I have to sit through one more gay play, I’ll scream …. “

To be honest, I’m with Tom, Michael and Brad, though it depends on the play. But Mr. Tolins’ Pirandellian play within a play-and all plays within a play are automatically Pirandellian-raises a surprising question for a gay play. What is a gay play?

It took me back to the time I was watching Peter Brook at work with his experimental troupe of actors when, staring intently into space for an eternity, groaning slightly, he surprised everyone by eventually asking, “What is a play?”

No immediate answer was forthcoming. But as Mr. Brook later challenged me to write a play for the troupe, I thought it best to find out what one actually is. “A play,” Lou Zeldis, one of his actors, explained in the tones of an oracle, “is anything with me in it.”

I made sure he had a star part. By his definition, however, a gay play is anything with several gays in it. That is, anything with several gays in it on the stage . But Mr. Tolins’ character Charles is more specific. He defines a gay play as “one with a bunch of gay guys in an apartment or a country house bitching and cracking jokes about what it means to be gay.”

“That would never happen,” says Brad-an ironist, clearly.

“And all the characters are witty and touching as they laugh through the pain of being reviled,” Charles adds for good measure. “That’s a gay play.”

Hence the daddy of them all, The Boys in the Band. Or Terrence McNally’s superior country-house saga, Love! Valor! Compassion! , or anything by Paul Rudnick. But from my point of view, all such definitions ghettoize. There are different plays-black, Jewish and gay, among them-but on balance, there are only plays.

Tom’s with me on that one. “I hate classifying everything that way,” he says, disagreeing with Charles. “‘Gay play.’ What’s a ‘straight play’?”

“Mamet,” replies Michael.

“You see?” Charles says. “That’s exactly the kind of joke that would be in the play about us.”

And since the Mamet joke is made in the play we’re watching, there’s no arguing with Charles, or Mr. Tolins. But I thought this whole question of gay stereotypes and gay plays was long since over. Tony Kushner’s 1993 Angels in America is subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Does that make it a gay play? It spoke to gays and straights. A bisexual play? Its sweep and ambition and brilliance spoke so memorably to everyone. A great play, then-the greatest of our time, speaking to us of a murderous era as no other play within memory.

The first major play on either side of the Atlantic to have an outwardly homosexual hero was written by an Englishman, John Osborne. The willfully renegade, politically incorrect dramatist courted homophobia in his time. But his 1965 A Patriot for Me made history for the Royal Court Theatre and defied the government censor banning homosexuality from the stage as a corrupting “inversion.”

Until then, gay characters in English (and American) theater were closeted. The tortured heterosexual lovers in Terence Rattigan’s renowned The Deep Blue Sea , for example, are gay lovers in disguise. Rattigan said as much, and greatly regretted it. But A Patriot for Me was no Boys in the Band .

With its 23 scenes and over 80 characters, the epic takes place mostly in Vienna, between 1890 and 1913, and is based on the true story and scandal of Alfred Redl, a spy who betrayed his country. In the end, Osborne’s Redl, the homosexual, becomes a patriot for himself-the outsider acknowledging allegiance to his own sexuality. It caused an uproar at the time. Leading gay actors refused to appear in it, John Gielgud among them. The gay actors who risked being cast were encouraged, however, by the appearance of George Devine, the founding artistic director of the Royal Court, who happened to be straight, proudly dressed for the drag-ball scene as Queen Alexandra.

My point of departure with Jonathan Tolins of The Last Sunday in June is that the dated Boys in the Band definition of so-called gay plays rules his own play. He wants to move the stereotypical into the present, but for me, he’s putting it to the wrong test. I wonder what that uncompromising, furious civil-rights campaigner, Larry Kramer, who was in the audience the night I attended Mr. Tolins’ play, thought of it. Mr. Kramer is the dramatist of the first AIDS play, The Normal Heart of 1985, and perhaps-like the audience as a whole, myself included-he laughed a fair amount with Mr. Tolins’ postmodern stereotypes.

“You should at least exchange rings,” Charles announces to the cozy couple, encouraging them into a commitment ceremony. “It could be beautiful, and covered in the Styles Section in The Times . Two men decked out in Armani, standing under a floral chupa , the band playing ‘Sunrise, Sunset.’ A room on Tavern on the Green, with specially commissioned topiaries depicting scenes from the lyric stage …. “

But if The Last Sunday in June doesn’t end happily ever after with dancing gays and a group hug, its melodrama and camp, revelations and style, remain too close to Boys in the Band . Mr. Tolins’ shrewd, amusing disclaimers within the play are a device to pre-empt criticism. I wish they had. Let me add, at least, that Trip Cullman’s production at the enterprising Rattlestick Theatre in Greenwich Village couldn’t be better. The ensemble is perfect, no one more so than Susan Pourfar in her witty, terrific cameo as the unfortunate-or blessed-woman in the piece.