The Liquid Moon
This is a confusing time to be a straight male. Thanks to the feminist and gay movements, we’re able to be more open and forthcoming in relationships than our fathers were. On the other hand, we can’t be too open or in touch with our feelings because mainstream culture remains homophobic and misogynistic and associates some displays of emotion with weakness and femininity. It takes a brave writer, male or female, to wade into these waters.
Which is why I admire John Green’s new play, The Liquid Moon, receiving its world premiere at Chicago Dramatists. Green takes a simple, well-worn premise–married man falls in love with much younger woman–and, avoiding the pitfalls of the genre, uses it as the catalyst for an honest, humorous exploration of the myriad contradictions of being an enlightened straight man in 21st-century America. His protagonist is both aware and unaware of his feelings, hoping to take charge of the situation yet not quite sure how to do so.
The only other work I’ve seen by Green was the mid-80s hit comedy Hamburger Twins, an amusing but not particularly perceptive work about a serious actor thrown into an identity crisis when he strikes it rich playing a talking hamburger in fast-food commercials. Yet here Green provides enough psychological meat to feed an audience for a week.
Green’s story about midlife crisis is the sort that used to get a lot of play on TV, in the movies, and in theater. Blake Edwards’s 1979 film 10, in which a songwriter falls for a much younger woman, was perhaps the most visible, but there were others in the late 60s and throughout the 70s: Cactus Flower, The Seduction of Joe Tynan.
The Liquid Moon follows beat for beat the arc of these earlier dramas. Green’s poet protagonist, Ryan, finds himself strongly attracted to a charming young would-be poet, Kelly, at a time when his marriage is going stale. But Green is sophisticated enough to employ a structure that allows him to both tell his tale and deconstruct it, giving it a degree of self-awareness generally missing from midlife-crisis dramas of a generation ago.
Ryan’s predicament is revealed in a series of flashbacks sparked by a long confessional conversation with a more conventional friend, Paul (it’s no accident that his name evokes the apostle). As adeptly played by Stephen Spencer, Paul is very much a Christian of the sort Saint Paul would approve: spiritually aware, faithful, a little sexually repressed–and proud of it. In this production Paul’s conservative haircut recalls the blow-dried look of televangelists and congressmen, and his golf shirt and khaki pants call to mind the conformist businessman on casual day.
Ryan spends much of the play terrified that Paul will judge him harshly for his flirtation with adultery, but Paul plays a more complicated role: he both gets his rocks off listening to Ryan’s sexual exploits and acts as his friend’s therapist when he says he feels he’s “on the verge of a nervous breakthrough.” Most of the psychological insights come from Paul, who brings up the Jungian idea that Ryan’s infatuation with Kelly may have a deeper meaning, one that has less to do with her than with feelings he’s projected onto her.
Ryan’s love interest adds another perspective through oblique comments early on and in a late scene when she insists on speaking her mind and analyzing her relationship with him. As played by Carrie Layne, Kelly at first appears very much a Hollywood-style sex kitten: meeting Ryan after a bookstore reading, she gushes and flatters and flirts. But Green makes clear what is not obvious in films like 10, that we’re mostly seeing Kelly through Ryan’s eyes. This is hardly a revolutionary insight, but one that in real life can take years of analysis to achieve. Later, when Ryan finally sees the wounded woman behind the sexy persona, we do too.
Even in her idealized state, Kelly never quite meets the expectations of Ryan’s inner pornographer, most notably in a scene in which she tries to seduce him but ends up ruining the mood by noting that her therapist is constantly reminding her “not to sexualize her feelings.” That line is also a devastating critique of Ryan’s mind-set: he too has sexualized his feelings, trying to deal with complex emotions–about his age, about his marriage and his wife’s impending menopause, about his yearning to be a father, about his wife’s mother living with them–by succumbing to simple sexual urges.
In the end, the play that started out looking like it was going to be a comical sexual memoir turns out to be a rich, moving meditation on love, marriage, and what it means to grow old in a culture that glorifies youth. Yet it never would have come across so well without Ann Filmer’s intelligent, cliche-free staging, which underscores the characters’ unconventional aspects. When Paul is listening to Ryan, his nonverbal reactions show he’s not just another religious bigot, and Kelly’s changes make her something more than just another babe.
Filmer has assembled a terrific cast. Norm Boucher in particular is affecting as the pudgy love-starved poet desperate to believe he’s still attractive. Boucher embodies the predicament of straight malehood: the need to be both soft and hard, emotionally available and tough-minded, Alan Alda and John Wayne. Judy Blue effectively underplays the role of Ryan’s wife, a likable, attractive woman who makes a crucial appearance in the play’s final scene.
But the real revelation here is Layne, who plays all sides of Kelly with equal ease: the kitten and the adult woman, the writer and the confused girl who doesn’t know whether she wants a father figure, a boyish man to mother, or just someone to love. Her portrayal speaks volumes about the complexity and depth of Green’s writing.