When did queer culture replace mass arrests in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with K-holes at the Morning Party? According to drag celebrity Linda Simpson, who wrote The Final Episode (P.S.122), drug binges trumped hunger strikes around 1994. Hosting an Ellen-like finale of a talk show called The Gay ’90s, Simpson surveys a decade of gay history and (in)activism. Born of the East Village, she revels in tasteless humor, with icons like the AIDS quilt getting gleeful disrespect from the Happy Homosexuals, the show’s, uh, “Greek” chorus.
Homo celebs are preferred objects of derision, especially lesbian contrarian Camille Paglia, who comes off less likable than serial killer Andrew Cunanan. One clever scene objectifies Olympic medalist Greg Louganis, dismissing anything the author-activist has written since he came out. “I have important things to say!” the Louganis character protests, as Simpson vacantly nods in agreement, transfixed by his crotch. It’s Simpson’s least sarcastic—and most on-target—critique of gay pop culture.
Loaded with verbal and sight gags, The Final Episode‘s relentless sarcasm is less funny than bitterly droll, especially in the third act, when Simpson reinvents herself as a trendy, postgay shopaholic. There are laughs, but some shots are just too cheap, as in a strained skit about “ex-gays.”
When The Gay ’90s is spared the ignominy of cancellation—worse than HIV infection in Simpson’s book—the catty hostess regrettably leaves unanswered her worries about the next decade, exacerbated by the success of protease inhibitors: “Snatched from the jaws of death, what do we do now?” she agonizes.
Return to ACT UP, maybe?
— Ernie Glam
Sparking a Crisis
Tesla’s Letters (EST), Jeffrey Stanley’s new drama set in Yugoslavia two years before the present Kosovo catastrophe, couldn’t be more timely. Anything that furthers our under standing of that part of the world is preferable to the increasingly jingoistic reports dispatched by the Pentagon to CNN. But while the play doesn’t touch directly on Milosevic’s latest genocidal rampage or the compounding misery of NATO’s bombing, it perceptively tells the story of a Balkan society so laden with a sense of victimization that it can no longer see its own murderous face.
Daisy (Keira Naughton) arrives in Belgrade to conduct research for her dissertation on the life of famed Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla, whose experiments with electric current rivaled Edison’s. Her access to archival material, however, is limited by Dragan (Victor Slezak), the museum curator, who requires that she first go to Croatia to document the damage done by the Croats to the landmark site of Tesla’s childhood home. It’s a setup to get the naive young woman to help spread the word of Croatian atrocities against Serbs. But the only reward she obtains for her service is an intimate knowledge of human evil, a discovery that shatters even the myth of Tesla’s peace-loving past.
While the plot steamrolls through complicated dramatic moments and the dialogue occasionally seems clunky, the writing offers historical depth and insight on a subject that defies simplified soundbites and media clichés. Director Curt Dempster’s clean production features an impressively nuanced performance by Slezak as Daisy’s grudge-bearing guide to the Slavic world. Naughton slightly overplays the self-possessed graduate student, though she vividly connects her character’s ensuing identity crisis with the region’s swamping chaos.— Charles McNulty
The Least Tycoon
During the predictable dialogue and laughably creaky exposition of Bitter Lemon (Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre), there was lots of time to think. What could have possessed this usually savvy company to mount this old chestnut? (Written by Jaime Salom in 1976, the play exudes a ’50s ethos like old talc.) Could any director have salvaged something of worth from it? Maybe, instead of wasting five talented actors, cardboard puppets could have been substituted, tagged with titles like “The Successful But Unfulfilled Industrialist,” “The Reckless Mistress,” and “The Cynical Tycoon.” Then word bubbles could display such dialogue from the play as “What is it you want out of life?” (the Mistress) and “My corporation owns 60 percent of your company and don’t you forget it” (the Tycoon). If director Max Ferra had taken this comic-book approach or blasted over-the-top into Soap-Opera Land, perhaps some zest could have been wrung from this Lemon. But all have taken the tale in deadly earnest. It’s the story of Juan, company president, his aristocratic wife, their teen age daughter, and the five-year-old daughter whose death left a legacy of fingerpointing. Juan has an affair with his—gasp—secretary and moves in with her, rebelling against “the sys tem” and the threats of his wife’s uncle, the Tycoon, who controls the company’s ownership. Should Juan follow his heart or cave in to hypocrisy? Ferra prods this along with pallid piano music and lots of purple, and he angles a distorting mirror above the action. We’re supposed to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” We do, we do. — Francine Russo