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Gimmicks, in playwriting, can generate structures. Lately, though, the problem seems to be that playwrights increasingly stop at the gimmick instead of going on to build a play from it. In the three recent openings reviewed below, the works vary in quality, but they all share an odd reluctance to live in their respective narratives. In each case, the writers have been content to seize a gimmick and lay it out before the audience with fancy trimmings. Result: a sort of nouvelle cuisine banquet platter—lots of lavish decoration and, in the center, one meager canapé, pretty to look at, but less than nourishing.
Yank! (York Theatre), the new musical about gays in the military during World War II, at least offers plentiful food for thought, a rarity in musicals, to make up for its lack of dramatic nourishment. Its co-authors, David and Joseph Zellnik, hook their highly topical subject to a stylistic gimmick: Since the love between two Army draftees couldn’t be expressed openly in that era, the Zellniks convey the lovers’ emotions solely through euphemism, supplying double-meaning pastiches of the period’s pop song styles. This is surely the only musical in history to use tap dancing as a metaphor for clandestine sex. When the lovers do finally sing their hearts out, it’s in the late-’40s “Broadway-opera” idiom. Their yearning even gets visualized in a ’40s-style dream ballet.
This ingenuity keeps Yank! constantly interesting, especially in its big dance numbers, choreographed with dazzle and inventiveness by super-tapmeister Jeffry Denman, who also plays a key secondary role. What Yank! unwisely fails to supply is enough information for us to see its soldier-lovers, Stu (Bobby Steggert) and Mitch (Ivan Hernandez), as individuals. Mitch, a seemingly well-adjusted Jersey boy, may or may not be gay; backgroundless, 18-year-old Stu, inwardly sure he’s “different,” is so hopelessly innocent he seems to have grown up in an isolation ward.
Giving the love of Stu and Mitch only minimal expression, Yank! keeps shifting focus to Denman’s character, a trashy, opportunistic gay reporter for the soldier-written magazine Yank, who undertakes naive Stu’s sexual education. Pulling strings with gay higher-ups to get himself cushy, combat-free assignments, he suggests, uncomfortably, the stock malevolent queer of the anti-gay imagination, not adequately balanced by an equally stock homophobe, Tennessee (Andrew Durand), the squad’s resident redneck.
More about external obstacles than about Mitch and Stu’s evolving relationship, this schema barely brushes the surface of the deeply complex phenomenon Yank! addresses. As the historian Allan Bérubé showed in his book Coming Out Under Fire, a wonderfully informative collection of reminiscences by gay World War II vets, homosexual pairings in the wartime military went on in every situation and reflected every imaginable attitude toward sex, love, war, and soldiering; the risks gay men braved were as harrowing as the punishment they faced if caught. Tap dancing was rarely involved.
Not that Yank! means to be a documentary; it only becomes one because its gimmick pushes its focus toward the obstacles to love rather than the lovers. Even so, it often has both pungency and point. Igor Goldin’s swift, tautly drilled production, energized by Ray Klausen’s ingenious sliding-panel set and Denman’s spiffy musical staging, carries conviction. Steggert and Hernandez bring warm intensity to their nebulous roles, and Nancy Anderson—imbuing all the female roles with her ineffable combination of musicality, beauty, magnetism, and unfailing comic sense—deserves at least a dozen medals.
Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (Playwrights Horizons) also features an actor with unfailing comic sense: Jeremy Shamos, whose first-act turn as a stressed-out, self-important community organizer is a Daumier masterpiece of vocal tics and physical convolutions. His character’s name, Karl Lindner, may sound familiar, having paid a similarly awkward social call half a century ago in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Norris’s gimmick is essentially a joke on changing neighborhoods: Hansberry’s Younger family caused tensions by buying a house in a white section, though Lindner tried to talk them out of it. Norris sets his play in the house they’re purchasing. Act I: Lindner tries to talk the white owners out of selling. Act II: Fifty years later, the now black neighborhood, having run down, is gentrifying. A descendant of the Youngers leads the fight to stop a wealthy white couple from tearing down the now “historic” house and building a glossy new one.
This is funny, for a few minutes. Norris knows how to pump laughs out of the setup; his uniformly fine cast, smartly directed by Pam MacKinnon, nails both the laughs and the pain that spurs them. But the elaborate contrivance exists only to carry one glib truism. Everyone’s a little bit racist? Gee, what big news. Somebody should tell the authors of Avenue Q. And the painful drama underlying Clybourne Park, often quite moving, is irrelevant to Norris’s satiric generalization: White families in the 1950s didn’t flee the inner city in large numbers because they were afflicted by tragedy, but because they wanted their kids to grow up in the suburbs. Affluence and a hunger for the new drove them out, not their neighbors’ cold hearts.
In Douglas Carter Beane’s Mr. & Mrs. Fitch (Second Stage), the irrelevancy gap is even wider. Beane’s Fitches, wholly unlike the Cole Porter–invented couple who inspired them, are a duo of married gossip columnists who talk, to our sorrow and constant earache, just the way newspaper gossip columnists used to write, decades back, with an old-style tough-guy editor who bullies them to pep up their column. Their pep-generator: Invent an imaginary celebrity whom everyone adores. Their inevitable comeuppance: Their hoax celeb is co-opted by the right-wing slime whose presence they’ve spent years chronicling. Their lame revenge: Give up gossip and unmask those fascist phonies in your great American novel. John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle exert a lot of energy trying to make Beane’s nonsense fly, but it’s hard to care.