You know the old joke: ” ‘Sex is a matter of taste,’ said the farmer, as he kissed his cow.” But the more pertinent question remains: Is taste a matter of sex? More specifically, is homosexuality linked in some way to a heightened sense of beauty? Here we have both A.R. Gurney and Terrence McNally presenting a gay or primarily gay man as a definer of taste, giving the world its aesthetic shape and sense. Interestingly, both of these American playwrights depict the homosexual arbitration of taste as, to some extent, a democratizing process: Gurney’s hero is one of history’s great tennis players, Bill Tilden, who, by making his playing style an aesthetic triumph, turned an elitist rich man’s sport into a populist event. The hero of Prelude and Liebestod, the second half of McNally’s double bill, is a conductor whose thoughts while leading a performance of those most popular excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan wander back through his own sexual career, to a moment of transcendence that peaks with the musical climax. In all three plays, sex equals art, in a distinctly queer manner.
The notion marks a 180-degree shift from its pre-Stonewall version, in which homosexuals’ aesthetic appreciation was a sign of specialness, marking gays as exceptionally sensitive souls, above the common crowd in their ability to appreciate “the finer things.” What’s intriguing is that a quarter-century of gay liberation has reharmonized, rather than eliminated, the old stereotype. Instead of accepting homosexuality as a mere biological fact, happily or unhappily reinforced by conditioning, the new tendency is to assume that queer guys are, as before, more attuned than others to the niceties of art, music, literature, and good taste in general; only now their function is to lead aesthetically clueless, genetically philistine straights to beauty by the light of their queer eye. The idea that a gay man might be, say, tone-deaf, color-blind, crass, or contentedly suburban and apathetic to chic, is oddly missing from the contemporary consciousness—along with the concurrent notion that a heterosexual male might have sufficient sensitivity to choose a shirt or purchase a CD without outside help. This is so patently absurd that the otherwise meaningless notion of “metrosexual” seems to have emerged in reaction to it.
Though both main characters are taste-makers par excellence, neither Gurney’s nor McNally’s hero is precisely a gay leader. Tilden, as Gurney’s fact-laden, pageant-like one-act portrays him, was a classic prep school queer in the old style: sublimated, fastidious, and driven to succeed, always sleeping (and showering) alone, talking of ancient Greek friendships while engaging in furtive gropes with his ball boys. Much of this is probably true, and Gurney volleys it at us in efficient, only slightly predictable forehand slams, along with the attendant circumstances and probable causes of the behavior that made Tilden an international star, and then dragged him into oblivion as a convicted pedophile. Too professional, too fair-minded, and too compassionate ever to miss a point, Gurney always has his eye on the ball. He conveys why he thinks we should honor Tilden (and gives us a well-positioned chance to do so), and how the player’s life might have been different, for better or worse, in our more liberated time.
All that Big Bill lacks is the touch of human inspiration that would make it believable. Like his hero, Gurney is so tidy about everything that you come away suspecting there must be more to his story. Mark Lamos’s equally tidy, punctilious production reinforces the sense of abstractness, with John Michael Higgins’s tirelessly proficient, clench-jawed performance as Tilden arousing interest only when offering hints of breakdown, like a clock that you only notice when its ticking grows erratic.
The eminent conductor in McNally’s one-act, megalomaniacally narcissistic, is no gay-rights advocate either, contentedly pursuing young men while publicly remaining in his well-furnished closet with wife and kids. As he drives his orchestra through Wagner’s ultra-sensuous music, with a compulsiveness not unlike Tilden’s, we follow not only his inner thoughts, but those of a quartet of commentators: his disaffected spouse, a young male pursuer, the nervous soprano soloist, and the envious concertmaster. The conductor is plainly based on an amber-toned celebrity, now deceased, as familiar to McNally as this music he clearly loves. The result is often both extremely funny and sagacious—not least in having this arrogant tyrant’s ultimate fantasy be one of total submissive helplessness. Where the work sags, despite Richard Thomas’s breathtakingly sustained bravura performance, is in the reality check: The supporting roles are thinly characterized; the outer lives of these figures, conductor included, are a virtual blank despite the skill of Leonard Foglia’s excellent cast. A similar problem pervades the evening’s opener, Full Frontal Nudity, in which three straight Americans and their tour guide struggle with their reactions to Michelangelo’s David. Here the homosexual hero of the occasion (Michelangelo) is safely dead, and so doesn’t get to speak; one wonders what he might have to say about the aesthetic sense of Borgia popes and other queer-eyed Renaissance patrons. Not to mention about the queer—sorry, peculiar—perceptions of our own time.