Theater District

About Face Theatre

at Steppenwolf Theatre

Sometime in the mid-90s it became apparent to me that female characters in contemporary television dramas are far better written than those in most plays. I’d rather watch an episode of ER than almost anything turned out recently by Donald Margulies or Rebecca Gilman–at least I know that the TV program will give me complex, vibrant characters like Maura Tierney’s Abby Lockhart and Laura Innes’s Dr. Kerry Weaver.

Television hasn’t done nearly as well by gay characters, however, particularly in network programming. I can’t say that this is the impetus for longtime television writer-producer Richard Kramer’s first stage effort, Theater District, now making its world premiere in About Face Theatre’s sprightly production, directed by Eric Rosen. What is apparent in this flawed but often enjoyable 90-minute piece is that Kramer has a keen desire to explore the complexities and difficulties of family life today–at least as it’s experienced by well-heeled, well-educated, almost impossibly clever Manhattanites.

Kenny and George are an upper-middle-class couple whose cozy domestic life has been upset by the recent arrival of Kenny’s brooding 15-year-old son, Wesley. The boy’s mother, Lola, is a high-powered literary agent now married to a low-key, good-natured ophthalmologist, Ben. Wesley’s closest friend, Theo, recently came out at a school assembly. When high school thugs attack the two “faggots,” the adult couples are forced to confront the consequences of their choices and their lingering doubts about the arrangements and compromises they’ve made in this uncharted familial territory.

Kramer, who’s written for such introspective (some might say self-indulgent) boomer shows as Thirtysomething and Once and Again, also did a tour of duty with the cult teen-angst drama My So-Called Life. And the scenes between the two boys (James McKay and Michael Stahl-David) are admirably free of authorial condescension and a straining for hipness. But though Wesley and Theo are the characters who suffer most in this play, their story is shunted aside for the kind of anguished self-exploration common in Kramer’s adult dramas. In a device reminiscent of the navel-gazing “interviews” of Once and Again, all the characters (but most often the grown-ups) have monologues that take them out of the moment, usually to reflect on falling in love (or at least in lust) with another character. This self-reflection might be illuminating but becomes alarmingly self-centered. When all four adults (and Wesley, briefly) meet to discuss the attack, which was severe enough to send both boys to the emergency room, no one asks how the perpetrators will be dealt with or what the school intends to do to combat such virulent homophobia. Instead their meeting devolves into a round-robin of recriminations and self-recriminations, ending with Lola’s insinuation that George–who’s been spending more time with Wesley than his gay-rights-activist attorney father–has had an improper relationship with the boy.

What Kramer has done in effect with George and Kenny is create a gay-male version of the good woman/bad woman dichotomy common during the feminist backlash of the 80s–a dichotomy often explored on Thirtysomething, which put stay-at-home moms in a glowing light while offering pitying portraits of neurotic, careerist single women. Here Kramer shows little understanding of or sympathy for Kenny, who admits that he really wanted a daughter instead of a son but whose inability to connect with Wesley is never fully explained. In a speech late in the play, Kenny expresses his fear that he somehow passed his gayness on to his son. But it seems that Kenny’s driven nature would have made him an indifferent father regardless of his sexual orientation. And though he gives George a laundry list of all the volunteer work he’s done for the gay community and the many awards he’s received, declaring that he’s a “good man,” Reed Birney’s guarded performance doesn’t help us understand the guilt that gnaws at Kenny’s paternal conscience.

Kenny and George’s relationship is echoed in Lola and Ben’s. Lola is brittle and status conscious: both Kenny and Lola, upon hearing that Wesley is friends with a girl whose father plays trumpet in the New York Philharmonic, immediately ask “first chair?” Ben is avuncular and goofy, defusing uncomfortable moments with his off-the-wall comments. But despite solid work by Mary Beth Fisher and Daniel Rivkin, Lola and Ben remain on the sidelines. The couples are so similar, and we learn so little about Wesley’s relationship with his mother and stepdad, that we can’t figure out why he chose to move to his father’s house.

Fortunately Tom Aulino offers a virtuoso performance as George. A fixture on local stages in the mid-80s, Aulino makes a welcome, long overdue return to Chicago. Kramer has given George most of the best lines–almost too many. At one point Wesley rightly observes that George, an actor turned restaurateur, constantly wisecracks about “food and showbiz.” The scenes in the Italian restaurant where George and his acerbic coworker Mario (Scott Duff) juggle reservations from demanding patrons feel as if they were transposed intact from Becky Mode’s restaurant-comedy hit Fully Committed. But Aulino makes it plain that beneath George’s barrage of quips is a good-hearted, nurturing soul whose parenting skills are much greater than Kenny’s.

Rosen gives the play a brisk pace, which minimizes the soapier moments but underscores Kramer’s surfeit of one-liners–one of the characters even comments on the group’s “quotes around our own cleverness.” This earnest if occasionally hollow first effort sometimes feels more like a better-than-average TV script than the groundbreaking piece of theater it might have been. Still, it does address the problems facing families dealing with both homophobia and divorce. For that Kramer deserves credit, as does About Face for giving him the kind of forum he’s unlikely to find on prime time.

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