Sometimes, it all seems to be merely a matter of word choice. Standing on Ceremony (Minetta Lane Theatre), a bill of nine short plays about same-sex marriage, opens with a piece by Jordan Harrison that shows a male couple struggling to reword the traditional wedding ceremony, and closes with one, by Jose Rivera, in which a male couple, at the altar, exchanges vows so hyperbolically poetic that they might be uniting on some other planet in a sci-fi future. We’re in a new world: Finding new words to match it will be tricky for a while.
Not that Standing on Ceremony offers deep scrutiny of the language issues involved any more than it does of the other questions same-sex marriage raises. As frothy as the hot milk dished up by a latte machine, its 90 minutes of fun slide lightly over the subject from a variety of angles. Affectionate comedy is the prevailing tone. Really more sketches than plays, its varied works sometimes linger for a moment over a serious matter but rarely delve into it. Words and wordplay become the show’s substance, it often seems, as a shorthand way of indicating where less resolvable issues might dwell. One-half of the male couple in Neil LaBute’s piece refers to his partner as “my husband—or wife, or whatever the hell I was gonna call him.” The lesbian couple in Mo Gaffney’s contribution, finding the terms “bride” and “groom” both too limiting, has opted instead to have the person officiating at their ceremony say, “You may now kiss the broom.”
The organized opposition that has made same-sex marriage a fierce, embittering fight nationwide hardly rates a mention here. The ugly violence that bigotry can spawn rears its head only once, in (you guessed it) LaBute’s piece, Strange Fruit, a dark, pathos-steeped anecdote narrated alternately by its newly wedded male lovers. Otherwise, conservatives are seen mainly as slightly frenetic, frustrated women of a certain age who quickly get overwrought. Beth Leavel makes joyous comic hay as one of them in the evening’s most innovative piece, Doug Wright’s On Facebook, which dramatizes the contentious thread that springs from a challenging status update, complete with emoticons, “Likes,” and an abusive post deleted by admin.
Even better, since celebration seems far more the evening’s overall point than cerebration, are Standing on Ceremony‘s twin peaks of laughter: two sketches by Paul Rudnick in which Harriet Harris takes center stage. In our theater, Harris is the Christo of comic acting: She wraps everything in sight under the fabric of her giddy, extravagant humor. With lines by Rudnick for material, she drapes the room in laughter so loud it’s probably audible over in Sheridan Square. Slyly, Rudnick’s two pieces give her antithetical roles—as a paranoid Christian watchdog of family values in The Gay Agenda and as the dotingly overambitious mother of a (horrors!) unmarried gay man in My Husband. Harris makes both endearingly, hilariously clueless.
Clueless, rather than malicious or viciously motivated, is how the show perceives both active opponents of gay marriage and its less than wholehearted supporters. “Why,” queries one of the L.A. lesbian couple flying to Iowa to get married in Wendy MacLeod’s This Flight Tonight, “does your father keep giving me power tools?” “He’s trying,” her lover explains, a little sheepishly. “Some lesbians do like power tools.” But the prospective bride’s—broom’s?—reluctance doesn’t come from distrust of her partner’s parents, it turns out, or even from the humiliation of having to fly to Iowa because same-sexers can’t currently wed in California. She has simply gotten a case of cold feet, of the kind that’s traditionally afflicted countless incipient spouses in the hours just before a ritually legalized union. You don’t have to be straight to have doubts.
Sweet but slight, in Stuart Ross’s smooth staging, Standing on Ceremony is no more than a spiffed-up staged reading, its cast positioned at music stands. As often with New York staged readings, though, the actors’ astonishing proficiency overrides the less-than-full production. In addition to Leavel and the sublime Harris, you get Craig Bierko, Mark Consuelos, Polly Draper, and Richard Thomas, which is not a list of the ingredients in chopped liver. I personally only want to marry one of them (unavailable, I gather), but the rest are festively welcome guests.