There is so much wonderful writing, and wonderful performing, in the 90 minutes of Michael John LaChiusa’s Little Fish that the work’s failure to make any overall effect is something of a puzzler. LaChiusa comes equipped with tremendous talents, which flow freely here: His lyrics are wittily pointed and elegantly formed; his music inventively bends standard melodic patterns into unexpected shapes; he is sharp with observation, generous with compassion, and able to evoke volumes of experience in the flick of a single phrase. Though Graciela Daniele’s staging has its flaws—for starts, she might turn down the overamplification and some of the more garish lighting effects—she’s given the work a cleanly sculpted shape and a jittery post-9-11 atmosphere that are emphatically right for it. And she’s gotten a castful of strong, largely sympathetic performances. The musical theater certainly has worse places to be than the Koolhaas natatorium in which Little Fish currently swims.
But for all LaChiusa’s spectacular gifts, he lacks the dramatic sense, the impulse to discover how the people he’s writing about change, by their nature, the situations they find themselves in. Little Fish strives to be a naturalistic musical about “real people” in New York today, somewhat in the tradition of Company, only the naturalism’s been left out. Despite their strong intentions and the atmospheric touches, the characters never fully exist; you leave feeling that you know less about them than when came in. The piece moves freely back and forth in time, but the flashbacks don’t reveal anything you couldn’t learn from its characters’ current situation.
Part of the puzzle is that LaChiusa’s people, who appear to be drifting, helpless underdogs, little souls with a gnawing sense that the world’s left them behind, are exactly the sort normally depicted as members of the glittering elite. If some irony is intended, it never comes across. The heroine, Charlotte, is a New Yorker short-story writer, which pretty much makes her the envy of every other writer in America: Even after the battering its reputation took during the moronic regime of Tina Brown, The New Yorker is still a fictioneer’s Valhalla. But reaching this glorified height has done nothing to bolster Charlotte’s ego. We never see her enjoying her prestige, mingling with her colleagues, or sorting her way through the perks that come with her status. In fact, she hardly seems to have a literary vocation at all. For a writer, she’s singularly uncurious; we don’t hear of her reading or researching, inquiring or observing; she never expresses an interest in anything but her own injured sense of self. Even when her best friend Kathy sings of the need to be remembered, there’s no hint that Charlotte’s stories might keep her memory alive. You wonder what she can possibly write that The New Yorker might want to publish.
That Little Fish is based on stories, by Deborah Eisenberg, from the magazine itself, doesn’t excuse the omission. The droll, mordant tactic of Eisenberg’s stories is to invent a fictional version of herself, in whom all her inner insecurities become externalized disasters. Onstage, though, Eisenberg’s tales take on a disembodied, pointless quality. On paper, Eisenberg’s narratives don’t need to convince you she’s a New Yorker writer; you’re reading them there. Since LaChiusa does nothing to enrich her fictive self in his stage adaptation, his heroine inevitably comes off as a blank.
Nor does Little Fish offer even as much action as a short story. Charlotte (Jennifer Laura Thompson) quits smoking and then doesn’t know what to do with her life. She apparently has no ambitions, social engagements, family, or even a circle of friends beyond Kathy (Marcy Harriell), a graphic designer who looks like a model, and Marco (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), an art critic turned entrepreneur. Her one other close acquaintance is the counterman at the bodega where she formerly bought cigarettes; when he isn’t there one day, and his replacement mutters something about an accident and his daughter, she doesn’t even ask what happened, much less express any sympathy.
In lieu of having a life, Charlotte frets about all the moments in her past when she’s run away from a confrontation. It’s a measure of the show’s imperviousness to reality that these are mostly no-exit situations you’d congratulate her for leaving: a grad-school affair with a man chronically dismissive of her intelligence; a flirtation with her best friend’s boyfriend; an apartment share with an abusive fashionista (Lea DeLaria) so borderline psycho that most people wouldn’t have moved in. Rather than celebrating Charlotte’s escapes, the show inexplicably makes her rack herself with guilt over these occasions. Finally she shoves some hapless person who got on her case at the wrong time, feels better, and—surprise—discovers that her friends have problems too. Fade out.
LaChiusa and Daniele find many delightful ways to illustrate this nonstory. When Charlotte tries to replace smoking with swimming, a Hockneyish fabric swimming pool swings into place on Riccardo Hernandez’s otherwise starkly postindustrial set. When she tries running with Marco, LaChiusa gives the latter a flamboyant song in which circling the track is equated with escaping from messy relationships. (I hope there’s oxygen waiting in the wings for Ferguson after his fearless nonstop performance.) And you couldn’t find a more engaging cast: Thompson and Harriell are both charming (though the latter’s belted high notes make me wince); DeLaria brings the monster roommate appalling conviction; and the supporting roles feature distinctive performers like Hugh Panaro, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Ken Marks. Aside from the utter absence of any center, there’s absolutely nothing wrong.
There’s a lot of show at the center of Jonathan Tolins’s The Last Sunday in June, but the final effect is nearly as empty as LaChiusa’s, because what’s on show is only a simulacrum of substance. Tolins hates gays, or hates being gay, as the case may be, so fervently that you wonder why he doesn’t find something else to write about. The titular time is Gay Pride Day, and the panoply of types who gather to watch the parade from lovers Tom and Michael’s Christopher Street apartment is the same gallery that’s inhabited standard-form gay plays since Boys in the Band. Tolins has gotten a lot of praise for drawing attention to this fact in his dialogue, but indicating that you know what kind of play you’re writing is merely the aesthetic equivalent of a dog license. The dog hasn’t changed, but other people now know what to call it.
Tolins does try to change the nature of the beast by playing up the negative side of various gay issues. The standard older man with his opera references and wisecracks suffers here from the gay world’s ageism; the shirtless hunk is intelligent, well-read, and bored to tears with being hit on; the lovers, about to settle in the suburbs, turn out to be deeply divided about their whole relationship; and so on. For a topper, the ex whom one of them still cherishes drops by to announce that he’s marrying—oh horror!—a woman. She duly turns up, and proves to be perfectly nice, aware that he’s gay, and generally content with the arrangement. Her flawless nature, unfortunately, blows the whistle on Tolins’s schema, since everybody else onstage has to be a perfect anti-paragon to make the effect work.
There are of course patterns of conformity in the gay subculture, as there are everywhere else in human culture, and particularly in America, where mass marketing makes regimentation run high. But to indict a subculture on the basis of its stereotypes, which is essentially what Last Sunday in June does, is to miss the point doubly: The stereotypes are never the reality; and they’re employed in art, especially in theater, because they’re fun—a convenient and entertaining shorthand for conveying other ideas. Which is exactly what Tolins does when he isn’t inveighing against gay life as universally futile and dishonest. His single most annoying trick, in fact, is to write pages of very funny standard-gauge gay jokes and then have somebody turn around and blast hell out of the characters for laughing at them—a piece of hypocrisy that even Tartuffe might find a little too bald. But perhaps it’s only to be expected from an author who thinks gay men’s problems in America are all solved now that they’re featured on national television. Authors who think that way are only going to produce works that fit Robert Patrick’s immortal definition of a gay play: “It sleeps with other plays of the same sex.”
Before Tolins’s drama heads for the big snooze, though, Rattlestick’s shaken it awake with an extremely lively production, smartly staged by Trip Cullman. The cast’s uneven, but nobody’s egregiously bad, and the plus side offers a very good performance by Donald Corren; a first-rate one, inventively timed and nuanced, by Arnie Burton; and a truly scary one by Mark Setlock as the aspiring bridegroom. Setlock’s power is tremendous, but he pitches the role so close to insanity that I began to fear he might head uptown and mate with the nutcase DeLaria plays in Little Fish.