Ben Burke and Edward Fraim
Ben Burke and Edward Fraim Credit: Alexa Ray Meyers

Midway through the first act of Terrence McNally’s 2007 Some Men, a surface-skipping journey along a singularly privileged arc of modern gay history, Michael and Camus connect in an AOL chat room. Amid the cruisy, bitchy chatter they find a deeper bond, at least momentarily. It turns out the last book both men read was the Bible. Michael seems something of a biblical scholar; when Camus mentions the verse that led him to turn to the scriptures—”Son, observe the time and fly from evil”—Michael can instantly cite it. But for Camus, the Bible was a novelty, and he was drawn in primarily because “there were good people and there were bad people and there were people like me.” A minute later Michael blocks Camus’s messages so he can arrange to fuck an anonymous barebacking leather daddy.

The scene demonstrates three of the main strategies McNally uses throughout the play, which leaps haphazardly back and forth in time through brief, discrete scenes from 1922 to 2007. First, in many scenes McNally reveals contradictory things about his characters, meant, perhaps, to counter gay stereotypes. Thus a chat room prowler is also a Bible aficionado. A hustler in 1968 is also a graduate student at Columbia with a jones for Milton. A grotesquely privileged Wall Street banker’s chauffeur in 1922 is both his employer’s lover and his avowed class enemy. Two libidinally overamped bathhouse patrons in 1975 discover they really want love—and form what will turn out to be a life-long romantic bond.

It’s one of McNally’s more successful strategies, for it provides a bit of psychological complication to a play that sorely needs it. Too often the scenes border on schematic dioramas, as McNally employs his second strategy: breezy reductionism (the kind that turns the Bible into stories of good people, bad people, and “people like me”). At a military funeral in 2007, for example, a slain soldier’s lover finds a moment of understanding with his lover’s father, who will never acknowledge his son’s homosexuality. In an AIDS ward in 1989, a dying man’s hopeful, deluded partner; his long-absent, unaccepting brother; a sassy but empathic nurse; and a noble, overworked doctor assemble primarily to demonstrate that love will survive even the most gruesome plague. And at the Stonewall one fateful night in 1969, a smart-mouthed transvestite finds a bit of long overdue self-respect, while a pair of aging show-tune queens rekindle their decades-long romance—all as the modern gay rights movement foments in the street outside.

While the scenes contain poignant moments, well captured in Pride Films and Plays’ solid if sluggish Chicago premiere, it’s the sort of material that’s been dramatized more thoroughly and insightfully elsewhere over the past three decades. More problematically, McNally seems oblivious to the concerns of people beyond moneyed, educated New Yorkers who belong to private athletic clubs, vacation in the Hamptons and the Berkshires, and instinctually imagine their kids going to Harvard or Yale. It makes the play’s penultimate scene—a support group for contemporary gay men who don’t seem to need much support—feel particularly inapt.

Directors David Zak and Derek Van Barham wisely avoid making more of the play than the script might suggest. This is no sweeping historical pageant or a chest-thumping pridefest but a series of private moments that form historical snapshots. While the lion’s share of these moments, no matter how well played, feel largely self-evident or inconsequential—as McNally prefers making points to creating dramatic import—the modesty of the production invites an audience to focus on the small human details, which is precisely where this production is strongest.

But nothing can rescue the play from the damage inflicted by McNally’s third and most insidious strategy: equating gays men’s worth with their ability to form long-lasting romantic relationships. Repeatedly throughout the play, the only durable happiness gay men find is in the monogamous arms of a boyfriend, partner, or spouse. The evil from which these men must flee is casual, non-relationship-building sex, which here is posited as a barrier to intimacy, a bad habit to be overcome, or a meaningless sport. It’s telling that McNally’s only interest in a 1970s bathhouse—one of the more politically complex centers of the sexual revolution—is its unlikely ability to bring “proper lovers” together. McNally, granting himself permission to cull anything from nearly a century of gay male history, concludes that our only accomplishment worth mentioning is our ability to fall in love.