Live Bait Theater

When writers mine their own lives for material, there’s always the danger that their experiences will come off not as wondrous and universal, but as ponderous and ordinary. This is exactly what has happened in Surrender, conceived by Ted Bales and written by him, Karen Yates, Cynthia Orthal, and David Weynand.

Bales is, to be blunt, in love with his own inner workings. But like any lover still in the throes, he hasn’t discovered yet that the object of his affection is fascinating to him only because it’s his. Bales struggles mightily to make Surrender ache with meaning, but his efforts have few, if any, payoffs.

One minute Surrender is autobiography (we think); the next it’s semiautobiography (we think–the program lists Bales as ‘Ted,’ the quotation marks suggesting a persona rather than an actual person); and then it’s parody (with what seem to be aspects of ‘Ted’ splitting off to become an Italian sex kitten and a clownlike drunk).

The confusion about person and persona is further aggravated by Weynand’s portrayal of the clown, also named David. This ‘David’ could easily be purely fictional, an aspect of Weynand’s own personality, a slice of ‘Ted,’ or a part of Ted.

But the ‘David’ mess is only a small part of the jumble in Surrender, which pretends to take on an ocean of topics–the twentysomething generation, gay life, pop psychology, and show-biz conventions. But it only wades into shallow water, and then nearly drowns.

Bales plays himself, or some much better known actor, or a combination of both. The host of a prime-time TV special like the ones hosted by Judy Garland in the 1950s and Barbra Streisand in the 1960s, ‘Ted’ tells us he’s going to cut through the veneer and show some soul. So he digs back for a couple of horrific, if fairly standard, childhood memories. He shows us his first glimpses of true love and of acceptance. Then he lets us peek at his near schizophrenia and his efforts to integrate the many aspects of himself.

This sounds far more interesting than it plays. ‘Ted’ is a likable but wholly undistinguished fellow with a rather uneventful life. Though Bales tells us constantly about ‘Ted”s despair, we get little sense of it. He’s lonely, but who isn’t? Why should we listen to all this aimless self-indulgence and self-pity?

Bales takes a couple of lame pokes at Vietnam-war protesters, women’s liberationists, the homeless, and other groups outside of the mainstream. When he gets a little too close to the edge on racial matters, he immediately tries to justify himself. “I’m not that racist–I couldn’t be,” he tells us. “I’m gay. That’s the lowest minority on the totem pole.” At best this is open to debate; at worst it’s arrogance of immeasurable proportions.

The most obvious absurdity in Surrender is its claim to offer something about the current crop of twentysomethings, given that its protagonist reveals himself during one scene to have been 14 at the time of the Watergate scandal. That would put Ted, or ‘Ted,’ in his early 30s now.

This information raises all kinds of credibility questions. More important, it helps explain the piece’s tepid gay politics. The protagonist is neither in nor out of the closet, neither conscious of nor denying his gayness. There’s no mention of any but the most conservative activism–one character’s billed as the state’s coordinator of gay and lesbian issues. The only reference to AIDS is by implication: a red ribbon is pinned on Bales’s lapel.

Ted, or ‘Ted,’ who battles shame and self-loathing throughout the piece, offers up only a semblance of self-acceptance at the end, when he’s introduced to the masses at a gay-pride rally. So we have to ask: An epiphany at the pride rally?

But even if we accept this premise, there’s no transformation. ‘Ted’ goes out of his way to say he’s no role model, then, with nothing to show, he tells us a change has occurred. After confessing that his problem has perhaps been self-involvement, he undermines this by saying that just being there, in front of thousands, gives him a certain personal satisfaction.

In other words, we’re right back where we started, gazing at the protagonist’s incredibly ordinary navel.