Terrence McNally and Adam Rapp, whose new works opened the same week, can conveniently be taken as specimens of older-generation and younger-generation American playwriting today. The two generations turn out to have more in common than you might expect: So much for generational conflict.
The structure of McNally’s Some Men at Second Stage, a series of scenes loosely linked by a few recurring characters, resembles the loose-jointed approach of our tv-influenced young hotshot writers more than it does the small-cast, single-focus dramas of McNally’s recent years. It also harks back, not irrelevantly, to the knife-edge Absurdism of McNally’s own earliest phase; short bursts of excitement are a youthful trait that an oldster can weave into more knowing patterns. Meantime, Rapp’s Essential Self-Defense, a few blocks away at Playwrights Horizons, strives to cover a wider canvas than his previous works, which were small-cast, single-focus dramas, like McNally’s in form though not in tone. The helpless, deadpan fatalism of Rapp’s characters here, a feeling that may strike many of his young enthusiasts as very much of today, evokes the early plays of McNally’s coeval Sam Shepard; Rapp also echoes the way such works draw on motifs from pop-horror kitsch. At the same time, he and McNally share, surprisingly, a fondness for an equally deadpan comic tone that recalls the sketch-comedy writing of the 1960s: In both plays, when couples try to put romantic feelings into words, the dialogue’s absurd crisscross instantly starts sounding like Nichols and May.
The chief difference is that McNally’s characters are all gay; his play is a chronicle of the changing ways in which gay men have dealt with the world and each other since the 1920s. Sex, though, is more of a passing incident in Some Men than its focus of interest; most of the script deals with the non-sexual problems that arise from two men sharing, or not sharing, their lives. Though Rapp’s main characters form couples, sex is rarely at the forefront of their concerns, either; the diffident lovers at his play’s center explicitly eschew it. It’s as if the omnipresent sense of oppression and fear has dampened the sexual drive: In McNally’s 2005, men in a gay chat room go off together to discuss their enthusiasm for the Bible; in Rapp’s near future, high school students go off together to hold a prayer vigil.
Not that either play’s spiritual yearnings would give much comfort to red-staters. Some Men begins and ends in the near future, at the next threshold of queer civil rights—a gay wedding at the Waldorf. In between, scenes skip non-chronologically from the 1920s to the present, each one lightly brushing in the obstacles to male-male relations, provided either by society’s rules and the varying prejudices of the men themselves, busily stereotyping their fellow gays by age, by look, by economic class, by the willingness to be top or bottom, in the closet or out and proud. “There I go, judging other people,” says a coarse-mouthed drag queen (one of several roles wonderfully incarnated by David Greenspan), who’s been made to feel out of place in a buttoned-up 1960s piano bar. “If anybody should know better, it’s a fucking drag queen…. I’ve been judged every fucking second of my fucking life.”
Rapp’s characters, in contrast, couldn’t be less judgmental. Mostly viewing society as an inexplicable “they” that’s set on destroying them, they take self-defense classes—Rapp’s version of a meet-cute is to have his heroine fall in love with the hero when she knocks out one of his teeth during a classroom exercise—or they work out their frustrations by chanting rock songs in the local karaoke bar; they let each other’s weirdnesses pass virtually without comment. When the hero says he’s read Mein Kampf and expresses empathy for the author’s struggle, nobody utters a peep.
Yul (Paul Sparks), Rapp’s hero, has lost his assembly-line job by making a political gesture at which his boss took offense, a situation worsened by a complex series of mishaps. Now acutely paranoid, Yul sees American industrial society as a conspiracy of “heart-sucking marketing gremlins and industrial warlocks.” Can the love of Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh), a children’s-book production manager whose occupation has endowed her with a teenager’s sentimental heart and the diction of a copy editor’s manual, rescue Yul from Unabomber-level anomie? Rapp proffers a lot of tricks and diversions, as well as musical numbers, on his way to giving this question its predictably negative answer, but the general air of unhappy helplessness, far more than the story’s specifics, is really his subject matter. If Some Men is the erratic social history of a sexual preference, Essential Self-Defense is the equally erratic, ahistorical (what’s a small-town butcher doing in this post-industrial drama?), biography of an antisocial attitude. If McNally’s drag queen wandered into Rapp’s karaoke bar, probably nobody would blink twice.
Trip Cullman’s cool-toned, suave production of Some Men, on an ingenious all-white set by Mark Wendland, gives McNally’s over-easy chronicle just the light touch it needs. Besides Greenspan, Frederick Weller, Michael McElroy, and Romain Fruge stand out in the generally fine cast; Kevin Adams’s lights do subtle architectural work. Carolyn Cantor’s production of Essential Self-Defense, rawer and harsher, features two fine supporting performances, by Cheryl Lynn Bowers and Guy Boyd; Sparks and Goldenhersh, in the leads, somehow manage to give their characters one pained note each and yet make it sound varied.