Oh. My. Goodness. There are some ATTRACTIVE men in this show. And sometimes they are naked. In a good way. Right from the beginning. Just so you know.
In other words, dress lightly (the Phoenix’ air conditioning does its best but it is no match for the hotness in this show) and keep your program handy to use as a fan.
Ultimately, however, this show is about much more than male nudity or even gay male sexuality. It is about important events in the history of gay men in the United States and, even more interestingly, it is about the complexity of the American gay male experience. This, in turn, makes me think about and appreciate the complexity of the human experience, including my own.
I was one of maybe five women in the fairly full house on Thursday night. For me, watching the show was kind of like spending time with an attractive married man: you indulge yourself by spending the first few moments of your conversation imagining what it would be like to make love with him, but you know it is never going to happen because you respect him, and yourself, and marriage, too much.
Or, actually, it is not so much about self-control and self-respect as about accepting facts. The characters in this show are all gay, not bisexual.
So after a while you stop fantasizing and just enjoy their company. You get to know them as people and then appreciate them all over again on a different level from their sex appeal.
But it fascinated me that one of the main themes of this piece is faithfulness: faithfulness to one’s self, faithfulness to one’s partner, and faithfulness to one’s people.
“Are we (gay men) a people?” asks one of the characters. What does that mean?
Just as you can’t really say, “All women…” or “All African-Americans…” you can’t really say, “All gay men…” Sometimes the only thing that two members of a group have in common is the fact that they are both in the group. Two of the characters in the show realize this when one man, Bernie (Bill Simmons), decides to divorce his wife and come out as a gay man in the early 1970s. His firmly closeted gay friend (Scot Greenwell) at the posh Athletic Club gets angry at him for “ruining everything.” As it turns out, all they had in common was their secret.
On the other hand, just the fact that I am a woman means that I am, whatever my politics, tied to the suffragists of the 1920s, the feminist activists of the 1970s, and Hilary Clinton here in 2008. I have more freedom to be myself because of them, whether I am willing to admit it or not. Gay men are connected to each other, too, the playwright and director show us, whether they call themselves “gay” or “queer” or “GLBTQ,” or reject labels all together.
“Some Men” is a collection of vignettes pulled from various places along the timeline of the past eighty years or so and presented not chronologically but in such a way as to build a scrapbook of what gay men have accomplished and discovered. It is a reminder, and a celebration, and an invitation to continue the exploration. There are enough “through characters” to satisfy the story lover in me as well. We see some of the characters grow and change over time as their connections are revealed to us.
Each man in the nine-man ensemble plays at least two roles, except for Gregory Howard. He plays the Piano Man (and plays the piano, charmingly.) But even he is seen in more than one context – a hospital, a piano bar, and a wedding.
The wedding frames the whole piece, suggesting that gay marriage is the next big thing to figure out. Not the rightness or wrongness of it, but the “howness” of it. If marriage is not about reproduction, what is it about? If it is not even about monogamy, what is it about? If I am a gay man, how do I continue to celebrate my hard-won awareness and appreciation of my own sexuality while also embracing my human capacity to form deep and lasting bonds with another human being?
What are my responsibilities?
One of the characters, Michael (Ricardo Melendez), shares that he took a stranger home with him when his partner was out of town and afterwards regretted it. “I made OUR HOME into a f*ck-pad,” he says. “Never again.” He also shares that another time when he went home with someone else, the man wanted him to tie him up to have sex. Michael complied, but then he felt angry. He stole the man’s wedding ring and left the man tied to the bed.
Michael passes The Ring around his support group. The men look at it with varying reactions, but each of them spends a moment with it. Marriage is a sacred mystery – whatever your religious beliefs – and a wedding ring is a powerful symbol.
I am afraid that I am making it sound as if this is a play about gay marriage. It is, but it is also about so much more than that.
One of my favorite scenes is at a New York piano bar full of prissy “show queens” mourning the recent death of Judy Garland (June 22, 1969) and wondering what all the fuss is about out on the street. A man (Kurt Owens) in full, dazzling drag (costume design by Caroline Stine) stumbles in from the Stonewall Riots with a broken heel and a mouth full of cuss words, demanding a drink. The British bartender (Bill Simmons) at first refuses to serve him. All of the customers turn up their noses at him. Finally, one of the regulars (Dave Ruark) takes pity on him and says, “He’s with me.”
After tossing back a drink, the drag queen forces a place for himself among the show queens at the piano and begins to sing.
Oh, the exquisite weariness in that rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow!” Kurt Owens’ face is arresting in any situation, but in this scene, myriad subtle emotions pass over it and fill his voice. He is mesmerizing.
No one moved, on stage or off, as he sang.
There are many powerful scenes in this piece. I mentioned the full nudity that is near the top of the show. That scene is heart-breaking as well as steamy. Bernie (Bill Simmons) is a married man who is having sex with another man (Ricardo Melendez) for the first time. Melendez’ character, a grad student named Zach, I think, who is earning his living at the moment from prostitution, is sympathetic, but he also has a paper to write on Milton later that night. Even as I was turned on by the two men’s beautiful, naked bodies, I teared up at Bernie’s anguish and Zach’s funny sweetness. It is a powerful, powerful scene.
The ensemble is filled with talented actors: J. Blakemore, Matt Goodrich, Scot Greenwell, Gregory Howard, Jon Lindley, Ricardo Melendez, Kurt Owens, Dave Ruark, and Bill Simmons.
The set, designed by James Gross and lit by Laura Glover, is swathed in scallops of white fabric that can be pulled up and down or enhanced with light stencils. (I’m sure there is a more official term for those, but I don’t know what it is. They make the stage look as if there is light coming through tree branches, for example.)
There are two gorgeous chandeliers that also come up and down, and a round piece at the back that swivels to reveal the piano. The space feels rich when everyone is at the Waldorf, clean (in a way that made me think I smelled chlorine) when everyone is at the baths, and airy when everyone is picnicking at the Hamptons.
Carlos Indiana Bustamante is the stage manager. Nicolas Crisafulli is the assistant director/assistant stage manager. They and the actors move several chairs around, too, to help establish the settings. Dani Norberg is the production assistant/light & sound operator. Another of my favorite scenes (I promise I won’t describe all of them!) is of several men in an online chat room. The actors sit in chairs facing the audience, dressed in pajamas, underwear, etc., as if they are at home alone at their computers. Some of their words appear on a big screen behind them as they speak them. When two of the men go into a private chat, spotlights illuminate them while the light on the rest of the men dims. There is heartbreak in this scene, too, but it was still fun to watch.
I think this show will be very popular, so if it interests you, I would definitely call 317-635-PLAY (7529) to make a reservation. “Some Men” runs through July 20 at the Phoenix Theatre.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com