Just Say No

Bailiwick Repertory

By Albert Williams

In his program notes for Larry Kramer’s Just Say No, the opening attraction of Bailiwick Repertory’s gay-oriented “Pride ’99” series, director David Zak opines that “friends of the very powerful Reagans who watched this 10 years ago must have been stunned.” Therein lie both the main purpose and the biggest problem of this high-profile production, the premiere of a revised version of the 1988 play. Kramer–famous not only for his work as a playwright and screenwriter (The Normal Heart, Women in Love) but as cofounder of the AIDS organizations Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP–is a major figure on the contemporary cultural scene, especially among gay audiences who respect his passion though they’re troubled by his crankiness.

Both aspects of his personality are on display in Just Say No, a scabrous satire of the era when Ronald Reagan ran the country and Ed Koch ran New York (into the ground, some might say). Zak optimistically calls this off-Broadway failure “a play ahead of its time,” but today it seems more in need of resuscitation than rediscovery. To Kramer, the Reagan-Koch years seem the epitome of political corruption and moral hypocrisy, a time when AIDS ran rampant while the dictators of public policy did nothing to stop it, fearful of offending religious right-wingers and of revealing the homosexuality of highly placed persons.

This urgent anger permeates Just Say No, but rather than making the play feel timely it makes it seem odd and out of touch–like the diatribe of a die-hard cold warrior still ranting against Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Steeped in the culture of 1980s Washington and New York, the work is peppered with references to figures and events long passed from the public mind: allusions abound not only to Koch and the Reagans but to Ed Meese, Gary Hart, Rock Hudson, Roy Cohn, Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Profumo scandal, alleged ties between the movie industry and the mob, the Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision, and the Vicki Morgan murder case. Even viewers old enough to recognize these allusions may have trouble remembering what they mean–or may not want to revisit that awful era. And younger audiences are likely to be left in the dark unless they avail themselves of the reading list in the program.

The Vicki Morgan scandal is central to Kramer’s thesis, yet it’s probably the most obscure of his references. Morgan, a Hollywood gold digger, made headlines in 1982 when she filed a $10 million palimony suit against the estate of her late lover, Alfred Bloomingdale–descendant of the department-store dynasty and a member of President Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet.” When Bloomingdale’s widow, a close friend of Nancy Reagan’s, cut Morgan off, Morgan threatened to reveal salacious details of their affair, including stories about sadomasochistic orgies involving Bloomingdale and other Reagan cronies. In 1983, the 30-year-old Morgan was found bludgeoned to death in her North Hollywood apartment; her mentally ill gay roommate, Marvin Pancoast, was convicted of the crime and sent to prison, where he contracted a fatal case of AIDS. There was talk of conspiracy and cover-up–some Reagan opponents hoped that the sordid story would crack open the Reagan White House’s family-values facade. But dark rumors of high-level involvement in Morgan’s murder ended up on the back burner, simmering along with speculation about Kennedy complicity in Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, and the matter seemed to die with Pancoast.

Except, apparently, in Kramer’s mind. His transparent parody of the incident is set in New Columbia, a mythical country ruled over by Daddy and Mommy Potentate. The play focuses on one Foppy Schwartz, a wealthy, gay gossip maven and self-described “hag fag” who counts Mommy Potentate among his friends. The rich, famous, and sex crazed use Foppy’s lavish Georgetown home as a midday retreat, conducting their liaisons in a suite of bedrooms named after such gay writers as Jean Genet and Oscar Wilde. These guests, many of whom are trying to avoid one another, include Mrs. Potentate; her nellie son Junior, whose dream is to “find a man, come out, and become a ballet dancer”; the Mayor of Appleburg, a horny homo who insists he’s not; Gilbert Perch, the mayor’s well-built boyfriend and a patronage worker in Appleburg’s Office of Sex and Germs; popper-snorting, whip-wielding millionaire Herman Harrod; and Herman’s mistress Trudi Tunick. She’s in possession of a video that shows her, Herman, and other powerful figures in kinky, compromising positions. Meanwhile Junior–who’s run away from home after Daddy Potentate discovered him frolicking in the shower with a pair of Secret Service guards–takes a strong liking to Gilbert, and soon the pretty playmates are padding around in bath towels like refugees from Terrence McNally’s The Ritz, trying to avoid detection by the mayor and Mommy, a ruthless dragon lady in a red dress. Declaring that she’s got “a man to run, a country to rule” and seeking advice from her astrologer via cell phone, Mommy is desperate to get her hands on Trudi’s scandalous video. The situation gets, um, stickier when randy Herman keels over from a heart attack while Trudi’s still stuck on the stiff.

In his program notes, director Zak compares Kramer to Moliere, whose comedies remain hilarious even though we no longer understand many of their references. But Moliere depended more on attitude than action, and despite Kramer’s verse prologue driving home the play’s moral, his script and Zak’s staging generally invoke faster-paced farce masters of more recent vintage. Foppy seems to wear a different evening gown for every new entrance, like an aging ingenue in a Broadway comedy of the 30s or 40s–an era also evoked by the barbed banter between Foppy and his wisecracking black lesbian maid Electra, an updated version of the sassy, all-knowing stage and screen housekeepers of yore. As in Georges Feydeau’s belle epoque classics, set designer Jacqueline Penrod’s glittering marble-and-gold foyer features a series of bedroom doors along a grand stairway, just begging to be slammed in madcap chases. And several raunchy sight gags, mostly involving the leather-clad Herman and Trudi, recall Joe Orton’s 60s sex farces: the evening’s biggest laugh comes when Electra noisily pries Trudi loose from the motionless Herman with the aid of an economy-size jar of Crisco; it’s a joke Orton would have loved, especially since the corpse is hidden behind red, white, and blue bunting. (Lindsay Jones’s sound design reinforces the parody of patriotic posturing with Mormon Tabernacle Choir recordings of “Hail to the Chief” and the like.)

But the laughter is less forthcoming at other times, despite high-energy, generally amusing performances by actors who play their roles to the hilt and beyond. Alexandra Billings’s whiplash timing and haughty elegance bring out both the meanness and the charisma of Nancy Reagan…I mean, Mrs. Potentate. Marc Silvia is marvelously manic as Foppy, transformed from lapdog to attack dog by his anger at the Potentates’ AIDS policy (is this Kramer’s spoof of himself?). Alison Halstead’s sharp delivery helps make the African-American lesbian Electra seem more than a token. Nathan Rankin gives an impressively physical performance as Herman, who’s in perpetual heat, while David Mersault offers an uncanny impersonation of Koch at his most arrogant, alternately snarling and fawning as the mayor (“You can call me May….How’m I doin’?”). Amy Farrington and Benjamin Sprunger are attractive and likable as Trudi and Gilbert–comic ingenues in the classic mold, though she’s clad in chains and leather and he’s clad in, well, nearly nothing. The only weak link is onetime Olympic diver Greg Louganis, whose wide-eyed, swishy Junior needs to come across as either a little less ingenuous or a lot younger.

All the actors work overtime to deliver Kramer’s politically charged parody. But it’s an uphill struggle–partly because many viewers just won’t get the jokes and partly because the ones they do get are likely to seem mean-spirited grudge holding, even if these old rumors do illustrate a deeper truth about homophobic hypocrisy. Who cares if Ron Reagan Jr. and Ed Koch are gay? Or if Ronald Reagan took part in orgies with his staff when he was governor of California? Or if Nancy Reagan, like Mrs. Potentate, is a racist, anti-Semitic gorgon who during her days as a Hollywood actress gave head to get ahead? (Mommy’s litany of lust isn’t confined to men, by the way. “In the old days the dykes all made movies,” she says, reminiscing about her casting-couch sexcapades. “Now they play tennis.”) The play’s climax, in which Mrs. Potentate masterminds Trudi’s murder and pins the crime on Gilbert, is a lurid lampoon that carries no more credibility than conservatives’ claims that Hillary Clinton is responsible for Vince Foster’s death. I’m not saying that conspiracy theories are always untrue–just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you–but that unfounded accusations are wrong whether they come from the right or the left. Even those who share Kramer’s passionate belief that Reagan and Koch are accountable for the early, deadly spread of AIDS through the gay community or who still hold Nancy Reagan’s antidrug campaign in contempt (as Electra says, “‘Just say no’ did for addiction what ‘Have a nice day’ did for clinical depression”) are likely now to just say who cares?

Thanks to term limits, we got rid of those bums a long time ago. It’s the new bums we need to worry about: President Clinton’s gay-related policies are hardly above reproach. Yet despite a few limp attempts to update the script by comparing Nancy and Ronnie to “Hilly and Billy,” Kramer’s rage is aimed almost exclusively at the power brokers of nearly a generation ago. Though hypocrisy is still widespread, and so is AIDS, Just Say No feels like a period piece. Too bitter to be more than intermittently funny yet too cartoonish to be instructive, it defeats its own laudable purpose.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.