Playing by the Rules
When I was a critic in Philadelphia I once joked that maybe bad plays could be saved by live sex onstage; but a night of graphic drama there proved to me that a theatrical version of sex onstage is usually more boring than a bad play could ever be. Now my theories have evolved further, after seeing Bailiwick Repertory's production of Playing by the Rules. The codicil to my jaded formula is that when sexuality is the intended salvation of the characters and not of the play, nudity and carnality carry an emotional punch that goes beyond the tease-and-titillation strategy.
Rod Dungate's bleak, seductive, well-crafted play about English street hustlers bluntly stages the commodification and exploitation of boys in the sex trade. Plainly described gay sex and plainly presented gay romance give this tale about the dehumanization of love an uneasy tension, a restlessness that defines and traps all its characters. Everyone is always moving: dancing, fighting, running off to a trick, fading into the shadows, reappearing from a corner somewhere, wired and wary. Always a little mocking, a little coy, the characters interact with the audience, making them complicit: voyeurs, consumers, confidants.
The story follows the professionalization of a new boy, 15-year-old Danny, who's transformed from naive runaway to slick procurer as he learns the rules of the street. But it also follows the coming out of Danny's lover Steve, complicated by Steve's ex-girlfriend and the tight circle of friends, gay and straight, who people the show. Jay Danner gives Steve--who's our primary guide--an agile, intelligent flair in a standout performance that fuels the evening. Andrew Schlessinger and Mitchell J. Fain offer strong supporting work, shifting roles to tell the story. Joe Rosato as Danny changes believably from genuine to feigned naivete, turning openmouthed youthful greed into a plausible beginning for the pimp he becomes.
Though the pace is sometimes uneven, director Jeremy Wechsler generally succeeds in maintaining the tension provoked by the play's brazen, confrontational explicitness. The ugliness of the boys' labor is shown in vignettes that wisely leave the details to our imagination, though they always involve a nod to our voyeurism. The self-conscious staging and actors' gazes at us announce that we paid to see this ugly story, and we have to look at all of it. The brutality of sex for hire is counterweighted by the small, supportive network of friends and by the beautifully staged tenderness of the central love scene between Danny and Steve.
In a play that uses confrontational tactics (shining flashlights in audience members' faces), exposes the boys' rage at their violation, and winks at the inevitable failure of love, such tenderness, such quiet and emotional vulnerability, effectively releases the erotic charge produced by all the loud, frank sex talk preceding this scene. In a homophobic culture that rarely represents gay love with such dignity and sweetness, the scene transgresses convention as well as the world of the play. It expresses holiness and fragility without losing the lustful opiate quality of passion.
It's unfortunate that after this scene the cast never quite regain the frenzied pace needed to frame this moment and sharpen Danny's final betrayal, and the play slips into street-boy soap opera. Part of the problem is the ex-girlfriend's drunken, whiny rage, which never resolves into anything dangerous, merely generating aimless confrontations. With Steve focused entirely on Danny, he's no longer our representative; none of the other characters take up the slack to shepherd us through the fights and denouement revelations piled up in sudden, interconnected explosions. The end is a blur of shouts, sales pitches, and growls, despite the repetition of the choral street poem that began the story.
Even so, the characters have stayed with me. In my own lust and disgust, I assumed the customer's role, consuming these prostitute/actors with a self-conscious pleasure. Playing by the Rules plays a confrontational head game with the audience, and plays it pretty well. In the end this was no sociological slice-of-life view of a safely distant subculture. The question in the smoky air was, "Who am I to love and hate such spectacle?" Breathless, I would pay for more.