Theater archives

Sign Language


The hero of Gemini, a Harvard undergrad in the early 1970s, is a Gemini— the second act takes place on his birthday, June 2— who has a passionate attachment to a female classmate but is seized with panic because of his equally passionate attachment to her younger brother. This situation is all the plot Gemini needs to cue its real function: it’s a comic banquet of dualisms, celebrating the contradictions we all have in our nature. Like the hero’s sexual tendencies, everything in Albert Innaurato’s 1977 comedy is two things at once. The scene is the backyard of a two-family home in South Philadelphia. Half the building’s occupied by the Italian American Geminianis, undergrad Francis and his father, Fran (note the sexually ambiguous name), who’s divorced from his “white” wife. The other half contains Bunny Weinberger, an Irishwoman separated from her Jewish husband, and her “genius” preteen son, Herschel, an infantilized mirror image of Francis: grossly overweight, socially inept, fixated on a pet topic, and already sexually confused. While Bunny vacillates between a manic pursuit of men and depressive hostility, Fran has an ongoing affair with a widowed neighbor, fastidious, hypercritical Lucille, whose prudish caution gives their assignations an almost balletic ambiguity of early-morning tiptoeings from her house to his and back. Francis’s intellectual soul mate Judith and her brother Randy, whose unexpected arrival triggers the action, are likewise a pair of divided souls— she paranoically convinced of her oddity, he desperately insecure in the macho department.

With so many collisions possible among all these bipolarities, Gemini hardly needs narrative to keep it moving, and indeed doesn’t have much. A communal outdoor dinner breaks up in disaster; the stress buildup turns Francis’s birthday party into a cake-flinging chaos; Bunny, depressed and hung over, almost attempts suicide; and Herschel has a medical emergency. But these are seen as typical of the neighborhood, where life is lived operatically as a matter of course. The play’s most significant event is one that doesn’t happen: Francis’s coming out to his father. Like everyone else, Fran has long since figured out his son’s problem, and is ready to accept him as he is; it’s Francis who can’t accept himself. He prefers escaping into the more orderly operatic world of the Callas LPs that are his obsession. At the end, when he seemingly finds a way out by going off with Judith and Randy, he takes Callas along; no choice has really been made.

Seen this way, Gemini‘s substance seems sad, even dark— which proves only that this is the wrong way to view it. Though homosexuality is rarely the central topic, every ethnic group in the world has turned out this kind of raffish folk comedy. The obvious comparison is to the Neapolitan comedies of Eduardo de Filippo, but I can think of analogies in the Yiddish, Irish, and black theaters; a leading Pakistani actor I met in Oslo told me that he had frequently appeared in New York, in “noisy family farces,” in Urdu, that tour Pakistani émigré communities around the world. Though Gemini is not played in Urdu, “noisy family farce” is a perfect description. Innaurato attacks the genre enthusiastically, with a generosity of spirit and a gaudy outrageousness of language that keep the farce from sliding into brute cruelty or ugliness, even as they drown out the serious story.

Similar characters and fragments of the same story appear in Innaurato’s darker plays, where they are genuinely horrifying, sometimes to the point of unwatchability. It’s all the more remarkable that he could render them here so affectionately: Flawed, obstinate, grotesque, and overdemonstrative, Gemini‘s people are nonetheless both believable and utterly adorable. They’re of Dickensian quality— the more excessive they get, the more you love them. The only exceptions are Francis and Judith, whose mixture of emotional inhibition and ornate rhetoric is a literary fantasy too sophomoric even for sophomores of that more bookish time; they suggest characters from Goethe or Marivaux who’ve wandered by mistake into a Cassavetes movie. There isn’t much an actor can do in these roles except look young, and play for charm even during bursts of fury, which Brian Mysliwy and Sarah Rafferty do admirably. The struggle is even harder for them than for their predecessors, since Mark Brokaw’s new production restores material from the rawer early drafts that was toned down for Broadway, giving the supporting characters freer play and whittling down the story of Francis and his college pals. (One loss, surely unwise, is the climax of the birthday-cake speech, in which Francis quotes his father’s “Take with both hands” homily— and then hilariously acts it out.)

The slight diminution means little because, in this kind of comedy, it’s the peripherals that matter: the joy we take in people’s individuality, their distinctive, quirky relation to their place and time. Brokaw’s actors clearly enjoy it as much as we do— scratching their rashes, slurping their food, and shouting over the noise of garbage trucks to create a poetry of clashed trash-can lids and even louder clashing egos. Linda Hart, as Bunny, gets the lewdest lines and has the loudest fun with them. (“Heat up the Coke bottle, honey,” she advises the unhappy Judith, “men ain’t worth it.”) Joseph Siravo’s slightly manic Fran and Julie Boyd’s querulous Lucille are nearly as good. Michael Kendrick’s Herschel is epically appalling, which is right, and Thomas Sadoski’s Randy is the better for being a little more creepy and less dewy-eyed than the Randys of the 1970s. If the feast still seems more miscellaneous than dramatically purposive, don’t think antinomies, think antipasto.

The antitheses of urban experience are at the core of Angelique, too, but in much more annoyingly predictable ways. The heroine of Lorena Gale’s play is an African slave imported from Madeira to Montreal around 1730, and purchased by the wealthy owner of an ironworks, ostensibly to cheer up his wife after the loss of their child. Of course, the rich man takes sexual advantage of the slave; the wife, aware of this but unable to stop it, maltreats her. She is mated with a male slave belonging to her master’s business partner, producing children who die, or whom she kills, in infancy; she cultivates a romance with the family’s white indentured servant; she tries but fails to make kinship with a Huron woman who slaves for an elderly neighbor. When Angelique’s master dies, she learns she is to be sold again, and arranges to escape with her lover; at the same time, somebody conveniently burns down Montreal. Captured, she protests her innocence, but is tortured and hanged just the same.

No doubt there’s drama in this piece of history, but Gale hasn’t found it. Her script at least always stands on its dignity, coming off more like a Canadian Uncle Tom’s Cabin than a Montreal Mandingo. But the preordained patterns into which everyone’s talk and relationships fall are no advance; Mrs. Stowe was the smarter as well as the more prescient writer. Angelique is dressed up in a variety of current devices— repeated phrases, tidbits of silent ritual, anachronistic allusions to Mercedeses and vacuum cleaners— most of which, having no inherent connection to the material, distract from the drama, rather than enriching it. Except for a few startling scenes— like one in which the wife beats a rug while speaking aloud her reasons for beating Angelique— there’s almost no sense of discovery, of surprise, of a life lived by individuals within the parameters we already know too well. Only Lisa Gay Hamilton’s presence, as Angelique, and to a lesser extent those of Pamela Nyberg and Jonathan Walker as her owners, give Derek Anson Jones’s production some moments when it can wriggle free of the script’s mechanical earnestness. Hamilton’s petite, striking appearance, the anguish suddenly bubbling up beneath her composure like a chemical compound seething in a retort, always give her performances a daring, unexpected rhythm that cries out, here, for a truer and richer text to speak. Actual slaves left actual narratives and testimonies; my guess is that hearing Hamilton read them would make an evening worth several hundred productions of Angelique.