Review by Mary Elizabeth MICari:
“The Homosexual Agenda”
Written and Directed by Robb Leigh Davis
Presented by Arts at the Park
Park Avenue Christian Church
1010 Park Avenue, New York City
I’d arrived just as the show started found my seat and was immediately pulled into the scene up on the stage. The acting between Nysheva-Starr and Jen Peterman was powerful and urgent. I was unsure what was going on but obvious tension and a claustrophobic feeling permeated the room. We, the audience, were sitting on chairs on the stage, the curtain closed behind us. It was a tight space and a black, unfinished stage was our set…the set we all were a part of. Right away I felt like I was a part of the meeting that seemed to be taking place in front of me.
There were a lot of words too. A tight place filled with tension and words and anger. Well, felt like so many meetings I have attended in my life I soon came to understand that we were watching the staff of a gay rights organization including its past President Emeritus and current President prepare to have a meeting with an influential Senator they had been courting to their cause for some time.
The play was well thought out and very full of messages. Many messages. I understood that the author wanted me to see that the chasm between the new generations of people fighting for gay rights are in a huge tug of war of differing ideologies with the older generation. The older voices (represented by Ben Dunn) wanting to fight on still and have vindication for an assault on a young gay man perpetrated upon him for holding his boyfriends hand in public while the younger generation (represented by Nysheva-Starr) has its teeth into the idea of politically correct jargon and the proper face and behavior.
It took a while for me to understand what was happening on the stage as much of the rhetoric was flying back and forth between these two. I felt like I had joined an organization was confused by what I was seeing. I think this was the author’s intent though. I really did feel like I was trapped in a meeting ‘gone wrong’ and that somehow I was supposed to understand and pick a side! Eventually, I began to understand who it was I was listening to and to identify or reject their side of the argument all the while getting deep insights into characters. Not only was the fight generational but also a fight between gay men and lesbians, the age old battle of the sexes and in this case each trying to dominate the other.
Enter the President of the organization (Pierce Forsythe) and the PC behavior starts to win. He is also young and a filled with the proper “speak.” Shane, growing more and more frustrated with what he perceives as stupidity, continually switches on and off a radio where a man is spouting his hatred for gay people on the air. We learn that the radio host has millions of listeners and this fact has really unnerved Shane. We see this organization falling apart as the new façade fights the reason it was formed in the first place. Soon the argument ends as Senator Grey (Robb Leigh Davis) a young African-American man and his assistant, Reverend Mary Chambers (Jenn Wehrung) enter.
For a few pages coffee is served and one sticky Danish. Pleasantries are exchanged and then the argument starts up again – this time on a higher octave. Shane hurls insults at the Senator and his assistant as well as all others in the room. PC Political rhetoric between the Senator and the Reverend cause Shane to lose his temper more until in a mighty shocking twist…Shane pulls a gun. He holds the Senator ,the Reverend, Alvin (Pierce Forsythe) and Evelyn (Nysheva- Starr) hostage while a now unfurled and gun wielding Tina (Jen Peterman) joins in with her own gun!
We are then taken to a side scene where the idea of spying on the Senator is revealed as we listen to a tape of him pandering to the religious right having been set up by Tina as he pretended to be a nice lady from a church group.
Some wonderful dialogue was EVERYWHERE in this play, much of it gorgeous to listen to, realistic and really fully-fleshed out. I found myself remembering the AIDS epidemic clearly through as Mr. Davis gives us poignant words from Shane and in the mouth of Tina he places the remembrance of a gang rape of a lover as she is forced to watch and unable to help. I actually liked the idea of taking things “commando”! Guns drawn and powerful speeches hurled into the ears of the others on the stage and the audience. I liked the way he used dialogue to show us insights into his characters and I most especially enjoyed the pictures he drew for me in the monologues he gave the characters most harmed by what they saw as a cop out by the very organization that was in place to help them and theirs and this young man who was beaten almost to death for holding his boyfriend’s hand.
As a director, Mr. Davis does quite well. His casting is well-done and his keeping us all cooped up on the stage while yelling, guns, tight faces and anger flew all around me was very exciting. I really was gripped by what I was watching. Mr. Davis as the Senator perhaps stretched himself a little too far as I found his wearing of so many hats may have lowered his stage energy at times.
Jen Peterman was a tight bundle ready to explode the entire show and when she did it was with a fierce force of powerful womanhood. She was like an natural element al force on the stage!
Nysheva-Starr represented the new “PC generation” very well. Her choices of movement and use of her voice was wonderful. It was easy to watch her work as every emotion she felt was on her face.
Jenn Wehrung as Mary Chambers gave us a steady, calculating bitch of a woman out for herself. I sensed a love affair between her and the Senator as her motivation even though unwritten. Great voice and a wonderful presence!
Pierce Forsythe as Alvin was a joy to watch. So clearly exhausted at trying to keep things from unraveling using Boy Scout team thinking and making sure nothing could ever be out of place while everything was going south. Very powerful explosion of temper….wonderful to watch it build as Mr. Forsythe’s face got redder and redder tying to remain in composure! He presented a very real man for us to watch. The very man that runs many non-profits with a lose grip and a too quick smile.
Ben Dunn as Shane was wonderful. He came on to the stage with “something” up. It felt like he had a secret pain somewhere or a thirst or hunger for something that couldn’t be quenched. His heartfelt and very real monologue about losing friends to AIDS gave me a window into the soul of both the actor and the character and my own as I was transported back with him to my own memories of the loss and sadness of the time. He reminded me along with Mr. Davis’ wonderful writing of the piece as to why sometimes we walk around like the wounded we really are and perhaps so many of us have given up fighting. Their work as an ensemble was great, and the tension was fluid and poignant.
Costumes and set were good. I thought Ms Peterman’s transformation from buttoned up assistant to Gun Wielding Revolutionary a bit too much like she changed into a super hero but it did not hinder her work or that of the show.
Nice touch was the hot steaming coffee served up at one point. I like reality, especially when actors are so close to the audience.
The theater was easy to get to and staffed by very friendly folk. I was very happy to spend my time there.
If Mr. Davis does this work again I recommend he trim some of the beginning sections and work to make a more cohesive arc for the whole piece. Still, he did a marvelous job of giving us so much in only ninety minutes. I felt I learned a great deal while there and have carried much of the many messages he wanted me to have in thought over the last few days. That said I think less talk and more action might be the way to go with this piece. Show me don’t tell me.
I hope that this work will continue and hope I get to see it transform.