Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Emerging Artists Theatre Festival: "Claymont" and "The Play About the Naked Guy"

- Claymont

Are there really places like Claymont, Delaware, where even the name is just another metaphor for the soul-sucking town? (Sounds like a mountainous place, but it's geographically flat.) Or times like 1969? which aside from references to Funny Girl and Bewitched, seems here to be an ironically repressed period, at least if you're a gay artist, trying to sculpt something out of your formative teenage years. Even if there weren't, Kevin Brofsky's written a play so plausible that it manages to defy the cliches one normally finds in this genre. Even his overly comic devices, like Dolores (Wynne Anders), find real heart in their human concerns, while others, like Sharon Letts (Aimee Howard), succeed by playing against type.

We first meet the lead, Neil, as he caroms through the living room, happily vacuuming for a fourth time (this allows him to loudly sing Broadway show tunes). Jason Hare wisely plays him as an excitable boy whose repressed sexuality has makes him uncomfortable in his own skin, which also leaves a lot of room for cooler, subtle moments where Neil, in the presence of Dallas Hitchens (an easy-going Stephen Sherman), is so busy unabashedly relaxing -- not just with a crush, or a father-figure, or simply a friend -- that he reads like an open book. Furthermore, by adding so many layers to the relationship between Neil and Dallas, Brofksy widens the scope of the play: it's not about being closeted so much as it is about feeling alone. That's something that Neil's mom, Shayna (Glory Gallo) shows glimpses of as she talks about caring for her paralyzed husband, or that's obvious from the way Grandma (Rebecca Hoodwin) spends all of her time dreaming of Hollywood Squares, as much a prisoner of the sofa as anything else.

The problem with Claymont, however, is the same as the one in the town: it's flat. It's fine to be casual, but Brofksy should take Dallas's advice to Neil and add a cave of blood to the center of his project, because right now there's not much to get people talking. (As long as we're comparing the play to its art, it also resembles the set's walls: a series of rectangular patches that are more often empty frames than spots of color.) Natural as the circumstances may be, and genuine as Jason Hare is, the play moves rather slowly, something that's not helped by Mrs. Hoodwin's lifeless recitations or by Mr. Sherman's passionless aggression. Neil, who is trying to win a scholarship out of Delaware, works like he has something to lose (or something to gain, as when he "goes to the moon"), but Dallas, who, despite facing the draft and the very bureaucracy he protested -- Mr. Ramsey, the art teacher, well-played by Ron Bopst -- hardly seems there at all.

I know, at least from the script, that '69 was a time in which people didn't have a cow, but the play needs to focus more on the clash between Neil's silent struggle and Dallas's rebellion: it doesn't matter how high the stakes are if no-one acknowledges that they're there.

- The Play About the Naked Guy

Taking into account my potential bias (Full Disclosure: I write a blog with this playwright), I'd say the only flaw with David Bell's insider satire, The Play About the Naked Guy is that if Charles Isherwood really had raved about The Integrity Players' latest play, they wouldn't have had to team up with the gleefully reprehensible producers of "Naked Boys Running Around Naked" to bring in the audiences. Then again, I hear that My First Time and Awesome 80's Prom just recouped their investments even as shows like Is He Dead? struggle to fill the houses, so there's some hard truth to the question of integrity at the heart of Bell's soft comedy. If acting is considered therapy, consider what playwriting is, especially with stone-cold lines like, "We made $90!" "Throw in $21.50 and you'll have enough for The Little Mermaid."

Aside from such mordant turnabout (worry not, there's very little fair play), the play goes above and beyond with its characters, all cranked up to 11 by director Tom Wojtunik. The Integrity Players themselves are: Harold (Wayne Henry), who, from his hilarious British lilt is obviously the actor of the group; Dan (Jason Schuchman), the upright moralist and director (sometimes his clipboard disappears, could it perhaps be up his ass?); and Amanda (Stacy Mayer), his pretty (pregnant) wife and all-around endearing ditz. In other words -- the fodder, or contrast, for the truly over-the-top characters: a trio of villainous gay men straight out of Ugly Betty by way of Will and Grace (Christopher Borg, Christopher Sloan, and Chad Austin), Amanda's deliciously DeVille-like mother (Ellen Reilly), and a cocky porn star named Kit (Dan Amboyer).

As Bell flips from disillusionment to desperation to debauchery, the jokes keep coming, staying well above the depressing underbelly of theater ("No one goes to Cymbeline because they want to") as he exposes the truth of production photos, the life of rich and carefree producers, and the secret of method acting. All this while simultaneously fleshing out Harold as a "new gay" coming to terms with himself, Kit as a wannabe actor who finds salvation in a "man" named Uta Hagen, the difficulties of working with your spouse day in and day out, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work of "Jesus Christ, He's Hot!"

There isn't much that Mr. Bell doesn't throw at the audience, and if he has to repeat himself a couple of times while transitioning, so be it: his jokes are funny, and the cast is recklessly hysterical. He's also well-partnered with Mr. Wojtunik, who not only keeps the play building to a mercilessly funny conclusion, but even throws in a key montage or too: just enough to poke a little bit of fun at Hollywood. And if you can't laugh at that . . . .

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