Alternative Lifestyles on the Boards

I recently had a conversation with two of my colleagues at work. The man was telling about his plan to fly to California with his husband and one-year old child. The woman recounted her experiences traveling with infants. That conversation could not have happened a decade ago and, just as President Obama evolved on the issue, so did much of the rest of the country (the retrogressive Family Rights Council and the Ricks, Perry and Santorum, notwithstanding).

The new America is on view on Broadway in Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” (having a limited run at Golden Theatre at 252 West 45th Street).

Tyne Daly plays the mother (named Katharine Gerard) who appears without prior warning (or invitation) at the home of her deceased son Andre’s former lover, Cal Porter (portrayed by Frederick Weller). He is now married to another man, Will Ogden (Bobby Steggert) and they have a young son, Bud Ogden-Porter (Grayson Taylor).

Katherine (a matron from Dallas) carries a lot of baggage, both guilt and recriminations. She blames Cal for turning her son Andre gay, which he points out is plainly wrong. Moreover, Andre is the one who was unfaithful and as a result he contracted AIDS, thereby endangering Cal’s life. Nevertheless, Cal stayed with him until his death. Nine years later, Cal met Will, who is 15 years younger and they eventually married.

The cast, under the direction of Sheryl Kaller, is superb. Daly (who last gave a mesmerizing performance as Maria Callas in McNally’s “Master Class”) is just as convincing playing a completely different type of character. Weller gives perhaps his most affecting work and Steggert is always a pleasure, whether in dramas or musicals. Even Taylor is likeable as the son.

The play falls somewhere in the middle of McNally’s work. He works in a lot of gay history and there are witty lines and painful moments. The problem is that the situation is unconvincing. Why would Cal and Will put up with this annoying woman so long?

Harvey Fierstein is another pioneer in gay-themed shows (as well as his own work as a performer).  In “Kinky Boots” (for which he adapted the book), he dealt with shoes for men who wanted to wear outrageous female footwear.  In his new work, “Casa Valentino,” he deals with men who want the whole outfit, in other words, transvestites.

The work is set in the Chevalier d’Eon, a Catskills resort (based on a place that actually existed in the 1960’s). The owners are a married couple, George and Rita (played by Patrick Page and Mare Winningham, respectively). The guests are a fascinating group, from Bessie (Tom McGowan), who likes to quote Oscar Wilde, a new member of the group named Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), the witty Gloria (Nick Westrate), the more staid Terry (John Cullum), Charlotte (a publisher played by Reed Birney) and Amy (Larry Pine), who happens to be a judge.

Suspense is generated by the fact that the resort has financial problems and George is under investigation for some allegedly obscene mail. There is a conflict between the heterosexual cross-dressers and the gay community and you can guess Fierstein’s sympathies.

Joe Mantello’s direction is up to his usual high standards and the play, despite its tendentious moments, manages to be entertaining, informative and occasionally moving. 

 A transgender central character is featured in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The musical has already received a number of honors, including Tony Awards for best revival of a musical, best actor in a musical (Neil Patrick Harris) and

best featured actress in a musical (Lena Hall). John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’ s 1998 rock musical is directed by Michael Mayer, who seems to have made a specialty of the form, with “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot.”

“Hedwig” is an East German, who had a failed transgender operation, leaving him/her with an “angry inch” and an ambition to become an American rock star. The 13-year old musical has been cannily updated. The theater supposedly became available after the failure of “Hurt Locker: The Musical.” Hedwig is bitter about his/her former lover, rock star Tommy Gnosis.

The look of the show is critical here and praise goes to the outrageous costumes by Arianne Phillips, lighting by Kevin Adams, wig and makeup design by Mike Potter and the set by Julian Crouch. Of course, most credit goes to the star, Neil Patrick Harris, who completely dominates the show. Hall is also very good; for much of the show I thought she was a man.  Harris stars as Hedwig until Aug 17; Andrew Rannells will play the role from Aug 20 – Oct 12.