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Undercover in the House of Love

Bailiwick Repertory

By Carol Burbank

It’s been a busy season for obscenity debates, as simpleminded moral certainty shines its harsh light into libraries, theaters, movie houses, and bedrooms across the nation. Even powerful heterosexuals like President Clinton are now squinting into its beam. A play representing Jesus as gay, faced with bomb threats from religious extremists, was nearly pulled from a New York stage. And the battered, emaciated National Endowment for the Arts may be rasping its last.

In this repressive atmosphere Brian Kirst’s intricate, erotic play about gay bathhouse culture is particularly powerful. In the 80s, gay performance artist Tim Miller’s frank nudity was a refreshing shock, but Undercover in the House of Love goes further, using explicit sexual choreography to turn the viewer into a bathhouse voyeur, an uncomfortable role that’s more political than pornographic. Kirst manages to demonstrate that sex–even anonymous lust–is more complicated than the self-protective, hypocritical Christian right would have us believe.

Gay culture in the age of AIDS also underlines the play’s boldness. When AIDS seemed to promise certain and immediate death, the gay bathhouse culture declined, becoming merely a piece of nostalgic history–or so we thought. Last year the New York Times reported with just a whiff of repugnance that bathhouses had become popular again among young gay men giddy with the promise of new drugs to prolong immunity and safer sex to protect the healthy.

The revival of bathhouse culture is both significant and ironic. Rejecting the clandestine lust of the Stonewall era, gays and lesbians of the 90s have lobbied for the right to marry legally. Almost plaintively arguing that homosexuals want the same monogamous nuclear-style families everyone else has, mainstreaming activists have been somewhat surprised by vehement opposition not only from heterosexuals but from queer activists. Both groups argue that gay culture differs from straight culture despite current trends toward monogamy, parenting, and Republicanism. The bathhouse culture asserts a primal promiscuous masculinity that once formed the fraternal heart of gay culture.

Yet the bathhouse community is an ambiguous source of power that sometimes works against the men who use it for sex, business contacts, and entertainment. And Kirst’s poetic, complex, surprisingly metaphorical play explores not only the liberating force of anonymous sex but the addictions that often go with it. Undercover in the House of Love blends long narrative tone poems with simulated sex and chatty scenes between friends, revealing the many overlapping layers of intimacy, abuse, and love in the bathhouse underworld.

Kirst structures the play as a classic coming-of-age story. Think of the horny young writers exploring the heart of cultural darkness in works by such male authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Inevitably these stories involve a lot of introspection and description, culminating in the narrator’s bare escape from seductive destruction. Of course, Hemingway and friends grounded their heterosexual melodramas in tales of bullfighting, war, and loose women. Still, Undercover in the House of Love relies on the same old formula, relieved of its tedium by vivid carnality and honesty. Kirst ups the level of testosterone, adds a dash of queer irony, and sprinkles the whole with an intimate knowledge of life’s fragility.

The simple plot is made baroque by its sexual encounters. Derrick, a refugee from the stifling conformity of corporate culture, takes a job as “snack boy” (counter clerk for the food concession) at the Ghetto, a New York City bathhouse. He wants to be a writer, have an adventure, break out of his shell. At first he manages to keep his distance–mostly–from the sex constantly going on around him. But when he meets Toni–a female photographer voyeuristically into bondage, gay sex, and crystal meth–he’s drawn into a 24-hour adventure that exposes his careful pretense of objectivity. Derrick backs out of the bathhouse world and returns to corporate America, choosing impulse control over unbridled lust. Resurfacing from the underground, he connects with his nonbathhouse friends, Maureen and Pete, and the ordinary world.

In a perfect universe Kirst would have cut the play’s redundancies, tightened the language in the long narrative sections, and made the female characters more real. There are cumbersome scenes that overstate the play’s themes, particularly Derrick’s moral judgments. When he sees beyond the surface pleasures of hard bodies into the addictive behavior of bathhouse regulars, he launches into a long meditation about emptiness. “[The bathhouse culture] is about being whole in body, but not in the mind or the heart,” he says eloquently, then launches into overkill, rhapsodizing about a “valley inside you” that “needs to be filled.” Toni, the photographer-corrupter, delivers a similar soliloquy about anorexia–a runaway epidemic among gay men and young women. And while it’s important to deal with issues of sex addiction and obsessive-compulsive behavior in the context of bathhouses, Kirst needs to trust his audience more–we get it, we get it. The carefully choreographed sex, with its compelling eroticism and disturbing violence, better conveys Derrick’s often restated warning against living entirely for superficial pleasure.

Kirst’s direction deserves a nod, however. It’s rare that a writer-director avoids narcissistic lingering over his own words. Kirst’s background in performance art serves him well here, as he creates viscerally detailed sex scenes that are always theatrical, emotional, and sexy. The play depicts anal and oral sex, orgies, and jack-off sessions with an eroticism heightened by the fact that hands rarely touch and mouths never enfold the penises displayed in the casual nudity of the bathhouse world. The idea of fucking is amply articulated in an intimate embrace, an arched back, or hands caressing nipples.

Yet Kirst never ignores the danger of anonymous fucking–a danger incorporated in the choreography. Not all the sex here is consensual or ecstatic. Kirst includes an oral rape, and in many scenes a partner’s drugged submission leads to ambiguous pleasure. Bathhouse cruising is shown as equal parts brutality and joy. Kirst and his cast capture the scene’s wandering, desperate looks; its casual, sometimes unwelcome passing touches; the stark fact of being on display; and the adoration of superficial beauty. The play critiques as well as celebrates the athletic, narcissistic physicality of gay culture.

The cast is to be commended for taking Kirst’s ideas to their extremes. Daniel DeLeon as Derrick makes his seduction an interesting combination of arrogance and innocence. As denizens of the bathhouse, Todd Ball, Joe Waterman, Tim Vaughn, Todd Cheatham, David Poile, Michael Hampton, Taylor Kaune, and Christopher Roche demonstrate emotional and physical agility in resonant portraits of a range of sexual obsessions. The women are less compelling, partly because they’re outside the play’s relentless gay eroticism, partly because Lori Grupp and Abigail Hext are weaker performers.

But minor disappointments in this bold production are far outweighed by its strengths. Off the Helms/Lott scale for obscenity but too intelligent to be classed as shallow pornography, Undercover in the House of Love marks a new and vital territory, the contested, sensual ground of gay male sexuality.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Daniel Guidara.