The Fire Last Time
Even as the summer season withers away, the Web site Fireisland.com loudly trumpets seaside delights. “Fire Island awaits your arrival,” reads the ardent copy, “with its pristine sand dune beaches, dazzling nightlife, fine dining, and striking scenery. . . . Whether you are searching for sheer relaxation, fun, or adventure, Fire Island has something for everyone.” Amid the descriptions of whaling histories, lighthouses, and kid-friendly events, the site somehow manages to ignore the aspect in which Fire Island looms largest in the cultural imagination: as the now-passé vacationland of gay New York.
Sick With Lust: Fire Island Tales (closed), a diptych of monologues culled from the writing of Andrew Holleran aims to capture that sandscape at its height and at present. Holleran’s 1978 Dancer From the Dance—from which director-adaptor Randy Gener fashions the play’s first half—remains an iconic description of the haven in its heyday, a lush and mordant tale following the dishy Malone through his chaotic and ultimately tragic sexual awakening. “In September, the Light Changes,” written some 20 years later, serves as the second half. Unfortunately, despite Gener’s best efforts and those of actor Stephen Nisbet, Holleran’s language never translates to the dramatic, never brings the scene to anything like life. (How odd, if not unrefreshing, to criticize a piece of queer performance for being insufficiently theatrical.)
In tight white shirt and white slacks, reading from a white notebook set atop a white easel, bathed in white and pink light, Nisbet attempts to animate Holleran’s characters. The excerpt from Dancer centers on the arch-queen Sutherland as he prepares to throw a sybaritic Fire Island soiree, including “sacks to release confetti, glitter, and pills” to the guests. Nisbet drawls out Sutherland’s lines with relish, widening his eyes and flipping his lush coif at each outrageous remark. Nisbet’s enjoyment notwithstanding, neither the character nor the narrative ever coalesces; the senseless rise and fall of a window treatment and miscued sound effects don’t help matters. It’s a wonder Sutherland, so concerned with atmospherics, doesn’t protest.
Gener and Nisbet fare somewhat better with the second selection, a Chekhovian short story, perhaps because it’s a complete tale rather than an extract. After Labor Day a lonely man (Nisbet, sans wig) attempts and fails to ingratiate himself with a younger couple. Though the timbre of loss and regret proves resonant, again the prose doesn’t flourish as performance. In aggregate, the two monologues do provide some sort of elegy for paradise lost, but it deserves a livelier wake. As Sutherland knew, if you’re going to deliver bitter pills, you should add some confetti and glitter. —Alexis Soloski
Few trends in today’s theater are more frustrating than the persistent demand for 10-minute plays. Festivals full of these literary spasms eat up production slots across the nation and particularly in New York. Theater companies that sponsor these events may think they’re sponsoring wit in their mad pursuit of brevity, but they’re just creating bad habits. The limiting structure forces playwrights to funnel dramatic situations into punchlines (only comedy can be achieved in under 10 minutes, never drama), and allows audiences to confuse sketches with plays (and thus lose respect for the one-act form).
Not aiding the cause of the comic brief is Twinges From the Fringe (Shooting Star Theatre, through September 8), Bob Jude Ferrante’s evening of 21 short plays, which, clocking in at 100 minutes, overstays its welcome. That there are nearly two dozen titles is the only novel aspect of the program. Otherwise, Ferrante appears unaware of the expiration dates of much of his material. The opening skit, Talking Cure, satirizes shock jocks, which —the recent St. Patrick’s scandal notwithstanding—nobody need have said another word about after Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio. But this seems fresh when you realize that four of the coming plays are nothing more than zany network commercial breaks detailing the inane plots of upcoming TV shows.
Later come the real golden oldies: The Godfather, randy priests, and men wearing berets speaking with exaggerated French accents. Sometime in the misty past, these were targets ripe for satire—between 1968 and 1974. Occasionally, Ferrante puts forth a clever notion. In Scene Analysis, characters communicate in blankly descriptive platitudes (Man: “Breathless greeting.” Woman: “Weak greeting.” Man: “Apology for being late”). And in the best piece, Recursive Playhouse, a woman fumes as her talentless boyfriend reads aloud his latest work, a short play (another one!) about a woman who must listen to her boyfriend read his latest work. But even these ideas are rooted in absurdist notions at least a half-century old.
The most interesting, or puzzling, aspect of Ferrante’s work is how his sketches often fail to follow the straightforward comedic logic clearly set out by their painfully simple premises. Not that the writing gets adventuresome—it just goes a little off. In one, two stoners are sharing a smoke. The first tears off on a paranoid jag about Nixon. The other, meanwhile, suffers a bad trip which transforms him into Tricky Dick. Another play concerns a crank who is obsessed with Atlantis. Also with Spam. And fried pork rinds, which he glues to his body for his Halloween costume as Job. As the man said, it’s funny strange, not funny ha-ha. Though many of these mental doodles require fairly extensive costume and set changes, it is never worth the effort. —Robert Simonson