Gay Marriages on Stage, West Side Story

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Two of the hottest controversies in the news right now are gay marriage and gays in the military. Wouldn’t you think that the theater, which attracts plenty of gay talent, would be overwhelmed with productions focusing on the human side of these two subjects?

Oddly enough, that’s not the case. I also drew attention to this anomaly when I looked at Crown City’s A Big, Gay North Hollywood Wedding a year ago. Now we have Caught at the Zephyr and Standing on Ceremony, coming up at the Coronet. But in the interim, as the ground shifted back in the direction of the legalization of same-sex marriage, the theater has been mostly — and strangely — silent. Of course plays about gay couples are not uncommon — La Cage aux Folles, anyone? — but I’m talking about plays dealing with the current controversy over same-sex marriage rights.

Likewise, I’ve seen two or three plays that dealt with gays in the military during the past decade, including Box 27, which related specifically to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (Actors Forum, 2007). But nothing in the past year.

Tracey A. Leigh, Jonathan CK Williams, Lucie McGrane & Raul Staggs in KEN ROHT’S 99¢ SAME-O. Photo by Christy Borgman

Celebration Theatre, LA’s most important gay-specific theater company, hasn’t addressed these two subjects head-on. Artistic director Michael Shepperd says plays on these subjects simply haven’t been submitted. Asked to speculate on the reason, he replies, “I have no idea.” Regarding gay marriage, the absence of such plays at Celebration certainly isn’t attributable to any lack of interest on Shepperd’s part — he and Hutch Foster were legally married in 2008, during California’s window of opportunity for same-sex weddings.

However, the Celebration will offer a couple of plays next year with allegorical or tangential relationships to the subject of gay marriage. In Brian Pugach’s The Next Fairy Tale, opening on March 10, two princes would like to marry. Chris Craddock’s and Nathan Cuckow’s Bash’d, a rap opera slated for late May or early June, features a gay wedding and a gay bashing.

It’s quite a challenge to avoid preaching to the converted in plays about gay marriage in LA’s small theaters. For example, the current 99¢ Only production at the Bootleg, Ken Roht’s 99¢ Same-O, concludes with a same-sex wedding, but I doubt that anyone who might be uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex vows would enter the Bootleg. And even if a same-sex marriage opponent did see Roht’s show, the lyrics are often obscured, so any political message might not even register. Roht’s spectacles take place in a fantastical universe that seems far from our own.

Corey Brill, Will Beinbrink in CAUGHT. Photo by Michael Lamont

In David L. Ray’s Caught, at the Zephyr, the style is utterly realistic, and neither the lines nor the message is obscured. Set in LA in 2008, the play depicts the careful wedding preparations of an upwardly mobile couple, suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a sister of one of the men, fresh from the Georgia Bible Belt with her teenaged daughter in tow. Naturally, this representative of the younger generation is much more open to the idea of a gay wedding than her mother is.

It turns out (spoiler alert) that the arrival of the Georgians is in the wake of the sister/mother’s discovery that her preacher husband, who has remained back home, has been cheating on her. Also it turns out that the teenager is still recovering from the suicide of a friend who was gay.

The play might be stronger without these “turns out” clauses, at least from the perspective of whether the play might actually change a few minds. After all, advocates of same-sex marriage rights can’t necessarily count on all of their opponents having hypocritical, philandering spouses or on every young person in the Bible Belt knowing a gay kid who killed himself.

Still, as staged by Nick DeGruccio, Caught is an engaging domestic drama, with valuable assistance provided by the character of the flamboyant friend who has just obtained an Internet ordination in order to officiate at the wedding. And it’s set right here in LA, which of course is one of my pet causes.

At the same time, no matter how realistic the play is, is it realistic to expect anyone who isn’t already supporting same-sex marriage to see Caught? Probably not on Melrose Avenue, given the neighborhood and the limited scope of the marketing for a sub-100-seat production. At least the title retains a hint of ambiguity that isn’t in the play itself, which might attract a few people who don’t know what it’s about.

Standing on Ceremony, at the Coronet, is a collection of short plays, by nine writers, that address the subject of gay marriage from a wider range of perspectives — although not so wide as to include any playwrights who appear to be actively opposed to same-sex marriage rights. I attended a benefit preview last Monday, but the production is not yet open for review, so I can’t pass judgment on it. The format is that of a staged reading, with a somewhat starry cast assembled for the occasion, and proceeds will continue to benefit  the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Equality California..

The production will open to a wider public next month, but it will appear only on Mondays at the Coronet — which alone might be a factor that would prevent it from reaching people who are on the other side of the debate over same-sex marriage.

It’s at moments like these that I recognize one of the limitations of a theater scene that’s built so predominantly around small theaters. If you want to change minds on a public issue — admittedly not the primary calling of theater but certainly one that isn’t unknown throughout theater history — you just aren’t going to reach that many people through sporadically scheduled productions in small venues. For the purpose of reaching a lot of people in order to persuade, about the best you can hope for is that your play will be seen by enough people who have the wherewithal to turn it into a successful movie or TV series.

Perhaps that realization suggests at least one answer to the question of why we haven’t seen more plays about gay marriage or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — because as a forum for advocacy, the theater just can’t compete with the mass media.

Caught, Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Dark on Christmas Even, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Additional Sunday performances at 7 pm on Dec. 26 and Jan. 2. Closes Jan. 23. 800-595-4849.

Ken Roht’s 99¢Only Same-O, Bootleg Theater,  2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Thur-Sat, 9 pm; Sun, 3 pm. Closes Dec. 19. 213-389-3856.

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., LA. Mondays, 8 pm,  Jan. 17, 24, 31, Feb. 7. 800-595-4849.

A couple of footnotes to the blog by David Saint about his experiences as the associate director of the new West Side Story on Broadway and as the director of the tour which is at the Pantages:

Saint directed a lot of L.A. theater, at such venues as LATC and Pasadena Playhouse, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He was directing Anne Meara’s After-Play in Pasadena in 1997 when he got the call to discuss a job running the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, He took that job, which he still has. In fact, he hadn’t touched down in L.A. from then until he came here for the tour.

Ryan Christopher Chotto, Mike Boland and Grant Gustin. Photo by Joan Marcus

One of the best features of this West Side Story is the “Gee, Officer Krupke” scene. Its savage satire of various theories about juvenile delinquency takes place at a point in the book that sometimes seems awkward — in the wake of the deaths of the gang leaders. A difficult tonal shift is necessary, but this production pulls it off well. The character A-Rab stands to one side of the “Krupke” satire with an apparent air of disapproval over the appropriateness of the moment. And the satire itself is presented in especially manic and lewd terms — almost as if the young men are hyping the volume of the scene in order to help drown out the magnitude of what preceded it. Saint says he told the young cast to think about doing it as it might be done on South Park.

Of course this production is best known for its liberal use of Spanish in both the spoken and sung scenes. Not only is it more realistic if the Puerto Ricans immigrants use their native tongue, but it strongly resonates with the presence of a massive population of Latino immigrants in LA. I couldn’t tell if many of these immigrants were actually seeing this production, and the management doesn’t take audience surveys that might help answer that question, but it’s a promising effort in the attempt to reach such audiences.

West Side Story, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Presented by Broadway LA, Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 and 8 pm; Sun., 1 and 6:30 pm; through Dec. 19. From Dec. 21 to Jan. 2: Tues.-Wed., 8 pm; Thur., 2 and 8 pm; Fri., 2 pm; Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 1 and 6:30 pm. 800.982.2787.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.