Famous Door Theatre Company
at the Theatre Building
A gentle breeze from Hushabye Mountain
Softly blows o'er lullabye bay.
It fills the sails of boats that are waiting;
Waiting to sail your worries away.
--Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, "Hushabye Mountain"
It was three years ago that Famous Door Theatre Company mounted the U.S. premiere of Beautiful Thing, the 1993 London hit by Liverpool-bred playwright Jonathan Harvey. Seen here at the Theatre Building before it transferred off-Broadway, the show was a bittersweet portrait of two working-class teenage boys in a London housing project finding the courage to admit their homosexuality to each other--and to themselves. Beautiful Thing focused on such issues as puppy love, peer pressure, and parent-child conflict but made scant mention of AIDS, a nonissue in this tale of two adolescents' first sexual encounter.
AIDS, however, is very much an issue in Harvey's 1999 drama Hushabye Mountain, which Famous Door is offering in a beautifully acted production as its season opener. The title is drawn from a somewhat melancholy, minor-key lullaby in the 1968 children's movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, evoking an otherworldly retreat from life's troubles into dreams--or death. "My mum always said that when you die, you go to Hushabye Mountain," says one of the play's principal characters, an HIV-positive waiter named Danny. Indeed, when the play begins, it's Danny we see--dead, winged, and white robed as he sits on a cloud-shrouded peak waiting to find out what happens next.
Hushabye Mountain is hardly the first play to bring AIDS and angels together. The dreamlike opening image recalls Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and Harvey's subsequent blurring of reality and fantasy also suggests that the Kushner play is a strong influence. In a way Hushabye Mountain picks up where Angels in America left off. The earlier play takes place between 1985 and 1990; Hushabye Mountain spans the 1990s, jumping back and forth in time to focus on two couples, one gay and one straight, in their mid-20s and early 30s. One of the four is Danny, whose death is established at the start; because the other three don't die, they must find a way to live with his loss.
Danny's lover, Connor, must wrestle not only with grief but with survivor's guilt, as well as with his inability to honor Danny's insistence that he find a new partner. ("I just don't know what to do," Connor says to his brother and sister-in-law, Lee and Lana. "No one tells you how long you leave it after your bloke dies.") Eventually Connor begins seeing a younger man, an aspiring actor and practicing Buddhist named Ben, who's also HIV positive. (He says he contracted the virus from a footman at Buckingham Palace, where "life was one long gay orgy beneath stairs"--and excoriates Queen Elizabeth for not funding AIDS research by selling her jewels.) But unlike Danny, Ben is likely to have a long life with the help of new drugs, a situation Connor resents. The resentment is irrational, of course--a projection of his guilt at remaining healthy--but it's a very real barrier if he's to make a new life for himself.
Danny's demise leaves a void in the lives of Lana and Lee as well. Lana is Danny's closest friend--and the person who introduced him to her brother-in-law, whom Lee hadn't even known was gay. ("Me best mate's boyfriend's brother's a bender," says Danny with whimsical delight before he and Connor spend their first night together.) Lee regards Danny as a member of the family; to him and to Lana, Ben is an intrusive presence. These three realize that Connor can't stay single and bereaved forever, but Danny's presence is still too strong for them to escape it. Hushabye Mountain isn't only the place you go to die--it's where you go to haunt the memories of those you left behind.
Besides Connor, Lana, and Lee, the person most affected by Danny's death is his mother, Beryl. Danny is estranged from his parents: he grew up in Liverpool, then moved to London to seek independence and sexual freedom, cutting himself off from a bad-tempered father. Forbidden to communicate with her rebellious queer offspring, Beryl secretly sends letters--increasingly daffy missives that tragicomically chart her descent into mental illness. Though Beryl ends up confined in a hospital psych ward, she pops up at odd moments in the other characters' lives, appearing to Connor as Julie Andrews's Mary Poppins in one scene and as a cigarette-smoking Virgin Mary in another. Her most frequent alter ego, however, is Judy Garland, with whom she identifies. ("They said she was mad," she writes in one of her letters. "Funny how it's always the women.") In fact we meet "Judy" before we encounter Beryl: in the first scene the gay icon is hanging stars over Hushabye Mountain, floating in a boat in lullabye bay and waiting to see if Danny will be "passed for passing on. Or is it over? I'm not quite sure." Neither is Harvey; Danny's fate is never decided.
In the manner of a dream, Hushabye Mountain flips back and forth between past and present, reality and fantasy. Just whose fantasy isn't clear: Connor's? Danny's? Beryl's? It doesn't really matter; ultimately Hushabye Mountain is the fantasy of its author, whose aim is to draw us into his own inner life. In fact Harvey's deep affection for the creatures of his imagination is one of the play's strongest attractions. Another is his knack for crisp, witty dialogue, though some viewers may be taken aback by the script's frequently raunchy language. (The play is also permeated with British pop-culture references that will elude some--Isla St. Clair, Fenella Fielding, the Wombles. And while allusions to Mary Poppins will be readily recognizable, references to the dismal, long forgotten Chitty Chitty Bang Bang probably won't.)
The characters and their feelings are so fully realized that we tend to go with the flow of Harvey's hallucinatory structure. Still, the best scenes are the most realistic ones, detailing the odd, random moments that fill the characters' lives. The closeted Connor nervously revealing his homosexuality to the openly gay Danny, the two of them quarreling as they plan Danny's funeral, Lana pushing back her bridal veil as she snorts a line of coke on her wedding night, the four friends cuddling in Danny's sickbed or partying at a disco (Lee's drug-induced motormouth monologue is a hilarious highlight)--these confident scenes convey a credibility lacking in Harvey's forays into the fantastic. His forte here, as in Beautiful Thing, is capturing not only the idiosyncratic, sometimes ambiguous nature of love but the flavor of working-class English life as his characters express a myriad of feelings for one another: affection and anger, hero worship and amused disdain, lustful objectification and sexual frustration (or "desire discrepancy," as Connor puts it), romantic tenderness and rough-edged camaraderie.
Like a collage of snapshots, Hushabye Mountain interweaves fragmented images to portray life's richness. With its sharp juxtapositions of mood, this must be a devil of a play to act, but the excellent Famous Door ensemble manages the task superbly under the direction of Gary Griffin (who also staged Beautiful Thing). Especially good are Steve Key as Connor, Timothy Kane as Danny, and Laura T. Fisher as Beryl/ Judy: they roam very wide psychological territory, fashioning coherent yet complex portrayals. Elaine Rivkin and Patrick New are excellent as Lana and Lee, as is Brad Johnson as handsome young misfit Ben. Ron Keller's set and Jeff Pines's remarkable lighting (including a dazzling otherworldly skyscape lit by dozens of miniature mirror balls) guide us clearly through the play's temporal and stylistic jumps. Not as concise as Beautiful Thing, Hushabye Mountain nonetheless confirms Harvey as a writer of distinction--and Famous Door as a company well suited to bringing his vision to the stage. i
The following plays are reviewed this week in Section Two: The Blue Room; Boom Town; Breathing Underwater; The Gin Game; The Green Cricket, Braising, Ragman, and Si la gente quiere comer carne, le damos carne (Rhinoceros Theater Festival); Histrionics: Four Plays by Women on Psychology, Sex, and General Madness; John Bull's Other Island; Missing Parts; My Cousin Rachel;
Nerdography: Confessions of a Nerd; Steve Martin's Zig-Zag Woman & Other Puzzles; To Relax and Laugh and Feeling Sorry for Roman Polanski
(Rhinoceros Theater Festival).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeff Pines.