Theater

Design for Living (er, Dying)

Imagine that effeminate Emory and masculine Hank from The Boys in the Band became lovers after the action of Mart Crowley's bitchy classic. Fast-forward 30 years and two careers in interior design, and they'd probably have a relationship as sensitive and intricate as Timothy and Neil's in Geoffrey Hassman's first play, Neil's Garden.

Evidently, if you're doing a one-room play about interior designers, that room better be en pointe, girl. Therefore, set designer John McDermott has created a living room replete with chandeliers, candelabras, and fine china, presumably with assistance from Hassman and assistant Gary Buxbaum, who have done rooms for three decades. With such obsessive camp in your face, it wouldn't be surprising to discover that it's a replica of some tragic celebrity's digs. Though the meticulously prepared set puts the Rattlestick Theater's threadbare seating to shame, it lends the production an uncannily documentary feel, as if the gilt edges were meant to distract viewers from the gravity of this modest work of homo-realism.

Neil and Timothy are gay men departing middle age who were in a relationship for most of the 40 years they've known each other. At a certain point, Neil left Timothy for someone named Arnold, but they've remained best friends. The stoic and casually successful Neil now has terminal lymphoma, and has decided to commit suicide, with Timothy's assistance, after dinner (apparently well before he's lost much coherence or strength). His death will be followed by a beach party in the Hamptons, where Neil's ashes will be released into the sea. Timothy, though physically able, is self-absorbed and fussy. A bit stereotypical, he compensates for his emotional pain with lightning-speed, campy repartee—"I thought euthanasia was a boys' club in Hong Kong," he quips. He suggests that Arnold would sit on Neil's prized crystal egg, attempting to hatch a set of stemware. The ex-lovers embark on a two-hour emotional cage match, reviewing betrayals, shared experiences, broken dreams—the whole relationship junk drawer. During the play's tense later moments, it even looks as if Timothy himself might end up a casualty.

Thankfully, Hassman's one-liners are as snappy as Crowley's, neither trivializing the drama's "issue" nor stealing all the focus. At opening night, however, the play was not getting the performance the script deserved. Though pouty, muttering Michael Warren Powell is well cast as Timothy, he doesn't yet have the role under control—he's all timing and no spark. William Bogert's more adept as Neil, yet less interesting to watch—and unfortunately, given the play's poignant, stark conclusion, a bit stiff. —James Hannaham


A Good Play Is Hard to Find

Every plain girl knows not to go meet guys with her drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend. She doesn't stand a chance. In Finally Flannery (New York Theatre Workshop), playwright-performer Barbara Suter has set herself up in a similar bind. Half the piece consists of her own jokey, self-conscious monologue; the rest's an amalgam of Flannery O'Connor's written and spoken words—eccentric, original, grim. Put most writers up against the great Southern tale-spinner and they'll come up short. But Finally Flannery also melds an unfortunate mismatch of subject and style.

Directed with the occasional flourish by Michael Sexton, the piece opens in darkness with the voice of "O'Connor" recounting a dark recurrent dream, a chorus of peacocks screaming in the background. Then the lights come up on a crisply dressed woman in a red sweater. This is Babs, played by Suter, an out-of-work actress doomed to toil in the pits of publishing. In stand-up fashion, she details the comic humiliations of her plight, the tics of her fellow workers, her obsession with escape. To this sometimes amusing, if familiar, material, Suter adds a few original flashes of black humor—displays of her "suicide sculptures," paper cutouts of final-exit options.

When a chance assignment puts Babs at dinner with novelist Pat Conroy, he suggests she read the great Flannery and create a show from her work. The rest of the publishing peon's tale describes her pursuit of this dream—reading the stories, visiting the author's Georgia farm, tracking down folks who knew her. It culminates in her transformation into Flannery—with the aid of wig, glasses, and a soft Georgia twang.

Why this metamorphosis? Babs drops hints that something bonds the two. She alludes to her own Georgia upbringing, to the mother that she buried in that red soil. But beyond these meager similarities, no shred of identification emerges. She "becomes" the gothic master, not through any shared vision or gut response that we can see, but because she needs a career change—and Flannery is her ticket out.

As Babs, Suter is stiff and immobile. Here she suffers from another invidious comparison. While she maintains a nervous uninflected patter, fellow actor Nancy Robinette bursts with warmth and animation. Playing a host of small roles, from a Southern matron to a kindly old doctor, the round-cheeked actor with the crinkly eyes often wins laughs, especially as a nicotine-maddened office drone and as hearty, back-slapping Conroy.

Suter's one strength is in her enactment of Flannery. Sitting primly for a TV interview or musing on her fascination with peacocks, the performer infuses O'Connor's words with the author's force and nuance. But this doesn't rise above an impersonation or staged reading. And O'Connor's pithy, striking prose can't help but point up the blandness all around it. —Francine Russo

 
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