Royal Flush

Retro Theatre Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre Studio

By Justin Hayford

Gay theater in America may as well be on life support: most gay plays are inert, kept alive by a sense of social obligation, not social necessity. It’s nearly impossible to find one written in this decade that does more than restate obvious and facile truths while suggesting that references to ABBA and Judy Garland are outrageously original. Show me a play with mostly gay characters, and I’ll show you two earnest hours spent skimming the surface of pressing contemporary issues, passing time until the lead actor’s pants come off. Yet even mediocre gay fare is good business; apparently we gays feel obliged to see ourselves rendered maudlin and cardboard again and again–how else to explain the popularity of Love! Valour! Compassion!? This isn’t theater anyone needs. Some days I’m convinced it’s time to issue a Do Not Resuscitate order.

Then along comes an ambitious mess like Royal Flush, billed as “the story of one gay man’s idealistic and sometimes hateful view of his world and how it is challenged by his three flamboyant and gossipy friends.” The toenails curl reading such tortured prose, and one wonders what this play’s got that can’t be had for free sitting in a corner of the Lucky Horse Shoe. And indeed, the first few scenes seem to secure playwright Tom Hietter a place next to Terrence McNally in the lavender dustbin of irrelevance. Teddie, the straight-appearing, straight-acting, just-right-of-William-Bennett career man, meets Dwight, the flighty gothic club kid, at a drag bar (why Teddie sets foot in the place is anyone’s guess), and a single reluctant spark flies. Under the watchful eyes of reigning drag royal Camille and his spiteful, violent cokehead manager-lover Louis, the unlikely couple make fumbling attempts at courtship–despite Teddie’s contempt for all things gay (not to mention his obsession with a straight college buddy) and Dwight’s inability to find two nickels to rub together.

I’ve seen this dramatic setup often enough to predict where things are headed. Teddie and Dwight won’t fall in love, but the condescending Teddie will get his comeuppance when Dwight gives a long, impassioned monologue about gender-role oppression and the Stonewall riot. Camille and Louis will tear each other to shreds a la Martha and George. Ultimately Teddie will cast off his self-loathing, volunteer at an AIDS organization, learn to snap, and finally embrace his faaaaabulous side. And yet another episode of Gidget Goes Queer masquerades as serious drama.

Fortunately, Hietter’s play is only half predictable. Yes, Camille and Louis do an Edward Albee on each other, and despite strong performances from Kelly Mantle and Doug Simpson, their self-destructive quagmire of a relationship lumbers along without much dramatic purpose. But with the story of Teddie and Dwight, Hietter veers from the well-worn path and strikes gold–at least when he’s not repeating himself every other scene or forcing his characters to talk about their feelings rather than act on them. What Hietter understands better than just about any other Chicago writer of gay plays is the value of dramatic ambivalence. At almost every moment Teddie and Dwight are both right and wrong–endearing and contemptuous, thoughtful and thoughtless, appealing and repugnant. This is not a play in which the good (read “open”) gay teaches the bad (read “closeted”) gay a lesson and the audience can feel reassured about which side they’re on. This is a play as messy and contradictory as life itself.

From the first moment Teddie and Dwight end up alone onstage these contradictions are apparent. They’ve found their way to Dwight’s crummy studio apartment, where Teddie squirms as though his skin were five-deep in cockroaches. It seems equally likely that he’ll pummel Dwight senseless or collapse into his arms. Then Dwight offers to get Teddie’s mind off the straight friend he’s in love with, a moment at once so heartfelt and so manipulative it leaves you gasping for clarity.

Hietter maintains this level of emotional and ethical ambiguity for the better part of the play, so that even when his scenes dawdle and his dialogue fizzles, his lead characters fascinate. As Dwight, James Gibson is a mercurial cipher, someone who switches imperceptibly from persona to persona to get what he wants. Yet Gibson also finds Dwight’s vulnerable side; your heart goes out to him even when he’s lying through his teeth to get money from a friend.

But the evening belongs to Michael Paul Gotch, whose performance as Teddie is as smart as they come–despite the fact that on opening night he did little more than mumble through his first two scenes. Gotch brings out the myriad nuances in what could easily be a one-note character–see how much Teddie hates himself. Struggling desperately to be happy, Teddie finally realizes that nothing about being gay will ever bring him any joy, and Gotch sticks with him, never once denouncing or condemning him. This is no morality lesson but a truly tragic fall.

It is precisely Hietter’s unwillingness to moralize that makes Royal Flush such a promising work despite its flaws. For while the great majority of gay playwrights seem content to tell us how we’re supposed to feel, Hietter shows us what it is to feel, to internalize and be torn apart by the hate-filled messages our society promulgates about gays. Teddie isn’t set up for correction or “enlightenment”; he’s the product of certain cultural, psychological, and economic forces that conspire to crush his soul.

Hietter doesn’t pretend to know how to resolve Teddie’s dilemma in two and a half hours–and any such attempt would trivialize the struggle. Instead he pushes Teddie to the brink of despair, bringing the play to a breathtaking halt just as he’s been psychically destroyed. It’s the kind of courageous, unapologetic ending that may signal an important new voice in Chicago theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Royal Flush stage photo (uncredited).