“I invent two people who should never meet under any circumstances,” said the great farce writer Georges Feydeau, explaining his methods, “and then arrange to have them meet as quickly as possible.” Despite its entrances from closets and other slapstick touches, David Johnston’s Candy & Dorothy isn’t exactly a farce but it’s like a metaphysical realization of Feydeau’s dictum: a comedy in which warring philosophies of life slap each other silly, until each admits that the other has some validity.
The scene is, literally, a librarian’s nightmare: Tamara (Nell Gwynn) is researching strong female images in East Village history while experiencing her own crisis of self-definition. In her mind, an afterlife, run like a TV game show, pits icons from said history—the Catholic radical leader Dorothy Day (Sloane Shelton), and the drag artiste Candy Darling (Vince Gatton)—against each other. To attain angel’s wings, Candy has to serve as Dorothy’s heavenly “case worker,” while ever-observant Dorothy determines to rescue Tamara from despair. Soon the two are invading Tamara’s apartment, where Dorothy critiques her moral choices while Candy counters with hairstyling tips.
Staged by Kevin Newbury with brash, slick speediness, Johnston’s play offers a good deal of both fun and perceptive compassion, along with a fair amount of information on its dueling heroines. Its cheery comic-strip attitude, though, inevitably leaves it with narrative gaps and biographical oversimplifications. Was Dorothy Day, after decades of feeding the hungry and battling on behalf of the poor, really such a prude? Fortunately, Shelton invests Day with a simple, passionate dignity that often puts her surroundings to shame. Nor were Candy’s values as raucously Warhol-centered as Johnston suggests. (He might have mentioned, for instance her appearance Off-Broadway in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings, with Williams himself as her co-star.) Candy’s genuine delicacy and her remarkable onstage charisma go regrettably unconveyed in Gatton’s skillful but conventional performance. Another oddly unmentioned point: The cancer that killed Candy was probably brought on by the hormone injections that preceded her planned sex change op; she literally died a martyr to her faith in her female identity. Delightful and thought-provoking, Johnston’s cartoon could use more graphic-novel shading.