The Risk of Being Cruel
at the Theatre Building
at the Theatre Building
Sex not only sells, it guarantees an amazing rate of return when used to lure gay men into the theater. Over the past several years, the number of Chicago nudie shows gussied up as slice-of-life gay comedies has reached nearly epidemic proportions. It's hard to think of a recent play about gay men produced locally that didn't require abundant trouser dropping. Hell, it's become Bailiwick's bread and butter.
But sex sells, one could argue, because sex is pleasurable and good: Bailiwick's well-deserved success with the original Party demonstrated just how much fun sexiness in the theater could be. But, to put it mildly, our culture is sexually confused; though we eroticize the human body in order to sell everything from toothpaste to automobiles, we can't stomach the thought of showing an actual condom on-screen. In this neo-puritanical environment, many queer theorists have argued that gay sexuality is almost by definition a liberating countercultural force. The argument goes that straight sexuality is too entangled in the power relations of patriarchy to be subversive (one prominent feminist critic commented that "every fuck is a rape, even if it feels good"). But gay sex is envisioned as a pure, honest expression of unpoliticized libido. That line of reasoning falls apart pretty quickly, however, when you realize that gay people are as much products of patriarchal society as the straights. But why reason when you can delight in imagining every gay kiss as yet another chink in the armor of white heterosexist supremacy?
For gay playwright Ronnie Larsen and his indefatigable producer Caryn Horwitz (who, until last week, had three of Larsen's plays in repertory at the Theatre Building), sex is as commercial a commodity as washing powder or insect repellent. Their productions of The Risk of Being Cruel and Making Porn, which Larsen also directed, prove that gay art can be just as sexually manipulative and dishonest as anything manufactured by and for the straight world.
The posters for the two productions, clearly envisioned as a matching set, reveal a marketing campaign that places sex front and center even if it has no business there. The poster for The Risk of Being Cruel shows a fleshy naked woman against a black background, one arm covering her breasts and one hand covering her crotch--it seems to have nothing to do with the production. The poster for Making Porn, on the other hand, plays strictly by the conventions of erotic photography; a young, well-built man, exposed before a white background, stands on display, seducing us with his gaze. Two disembodied hands hold a movie clapboard before his crotch, as if marking the beginning of a film scene. The message is clear: once the show starts (whether it's the imaginary one in the poster or the real show) that clapboard will be removed, revealing the model's golden delights.
Yet both posters also veil their exhibitionism behind a veneer of literary legitimacy. The Risk of Being Cruel is "inspired by the Jenny Jones murder case," the poster announces, while Making Porn is "about the gay porn industry." Purportedly the plays examine society, not the naked body. The actual productions, however, make plain how false are the posters' promises of both social criticism and voyeurism. The Risk of Being Cruel offers a healthy dose of social commentary but no nudity, and Making Porn offers lots of nudity but not a drop of social criticism. The posters are almost indistinguishable, but the shows are entirely different.
That's especially disappointing in the case of The Risk of Being Cruel, by far the better of the two plays. A marketing campaign that played up its true strength--its attention to an issue that nearly everyone in the mass media got completely wrong--might have helped the play fare better. But it was poorly attended, so Horwitz closed it early and moved Making Porn into its vacant time slots.
Media coverage of the Jenny Jones murder showed the true colors of the American press. Conservative Republicans may bemoan the supposed excesses of the "liberal news media," but the stories about this case revealed what a frighteningly reactionary institution it is. On March 9, Jonathan Schmitz brutally gunned down Scott Amedure several days after Amedure was presented to Schmitz as his "secret admirer" during a taping of the Jenny Jones show. Instead of acknowledging the obvious truth of the matter--a homophobic brute killed Amedure--the press rushed to lay the blame at the feet of trash TV, thereby letting Schmitz off the hook. Daytime talk shows had simply "gone too far," resulting in a murder that "had to happen sooner or later." The media's virulent homophobia was horrifyingly apparent: Jenny Jones had done the unspeakable, "humiliating" a straight man by placing him on the receiving end of a contaminating homosexual gaze. Even Andrew Sullivan, New Republic gay editor, appeared on Nightline to say that Jones irresponsibly provoked murderous heterosexual impulses. Never mind that after the taping of the infamous episode Schmitz and Amedure went out for drinks together, flew back to Michigan together, and stayed out drinking together until two in the morning. Heterosexual panic, even after several days' thought, certainly justifies blowing some sick faggot's head off.
In the thought-provoking if somewhat muddled The Risk of Being Cruel, Larsen creates a fictionalized version of the murder in which the genial but painfully insecure Lee collapses into hysteria after innocuous Stanley's confession of love on the nationally televised "Jill Johnson Show." Larsen spices things up by giving Lee a ferocious and unscrupulous girlfriend, Karen, who will stop at nothing to ensure that the offending episode never airs. To further the point, Larsen intercuts the story of a best-selling novelist's efforts to publish a nonfiction book about a New York drag queen who murdered her lover and kept him mummified in a closet for 20 years. Roy, Jack's publisher, balks at publishing Jack's drag-queen book, insisting that no one would want to read it even though in the past he's encouraged Jack to put as much sex and violence into his writing as possible.
Apparently Roy is willing to sacrifice the substantial revenue such a book would undoubtedly generate because he's terrified of being perceived as gay if he publishes it. Karen commits several felonies to make sure no one thinks her boyfriend is gay. And Lee, like his real-life counterpart, ultimately kills his secret admirer in cold blood, more comfortable in the role of confessed murderer than perceived homosexual. True to life, these characters never reflect on the question that is clearly uppermost in Larsen's mind: So what if people think you're gay? Instead, like our "liberal" press, they equate the mere suggestion of homosexuality with moral contagion, which justifies lashing out at anyone who would dare make such a suggestion.
Larsen's world is sobering in its psychological accuracy, and with a good deal of editing and reworking he might end up with a terrific play. But his skills as a dramatist are inconsistent, and like so many young playwrights he can't always figure out how to get his characters to actually do anything onstage. More often than not they talk about how they're responding to each other rather than actually responding, making much of the play feel like the subtextual outline for a play that didn't get written. But when Larsen actually lets his characters go--as in one riveting scene in which Delores, the drag queen, gives her lover a back rub while coolly preparing to murder him--the results are stunning.
It's a shame that more people won't get a chance to see this promising work--they'll be packing into Making Porn instead. The strengths of The Risk of Being Cruel are nowhere to be found in Making Porn, a two-and-a-half-hour conglomeration of styles, stories, and themes. Despite fine performances by a remarkably strong cast, it feels like six undeveloped plays rolled into one very long, meandering evening.
This play is not at all "about the gay porn industry," though the action does take place in and around a low-budget gay porno film studio. These stories unfold only on a personal level: the tyrannical, temperamental director/producer Arthur alienates everyone with his despotic ways. Arthur's lover Jamie falls in love with the new 19-year-old porno actor Ricky and finds himself torn between two lovers. Jack, the hunky--and married--aspiring actor watches his life crumble into absurdity as he gets caught up in a gay porno career that his wife manages. The play isn't about the gay porn industry any more than Casablanca is about World War II; it just so happens that the people in it are part of that industry.
The one "issue" Larsen attempts to examine is the financial exploitation of porn workers by industry executives, here embodied in Arthur. If you're willing to ignore the well-worn fact that labor in a capitalist society is by definition exploited, such a toothless bit of social commentary might engage you. Otherwise you'll quickly realize that Larsen's porno studio exists for essentially two reasons: to provide ample opportunities for scandalous screwball comedy (the audience howled when the director's assistant shaved an actor's ass) and to provide even ampler opportunities for men to take off their clothes.
Ultimately Making Porn is an elaborate device for putting naked men on display. But since the playwright can't openly admit that impulse and the audience can't openly embrace it, Larsen almost always ironically disparages the nudity. The actual sex scenes are presented as broad spoofs of bad porn, complete with dreadful acting and horrible dialogue. This satirical edge allows us to hide behind sophisticated chuckles, like ten-year-olds snickering over a deck of nudie playing cards. It's even more troubling that Larsen tries to suggest that pornography is humiliating and degrading all the while he's having his actors strip as many times as the veneer of legitimacy allows. Such hypocrisy is uglier than the lowest-budget porno film could ever be.
The gay community desperately needs a play that's genuinely about the gay porn industry. Though passionate, insightful feminist scholars have been pointing out the complex and often troubling reality of pornography in American culture for decades, it seems that none of that critical awareness has seeped into popular gay-male culture. Porno films play continuously at several local gay bars--almost always eroticizing unsafe sexual practices. Porno stars perform at gay nightclubs to thronging hordes. Windy City Times even runs regular reviews of new porno films.
As a community, gay men seem unwilling even to entertain the notion that pornography, with its relentless objectification and fetishization of certain acts, body parts, ethnic features, and fantasy roles, may have its harmful, or at least problematic, facets. Looked at in that light, Making Porn is just about the last play our community needs.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Reilly Photography.