No Apologies | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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City Lit Theater Company

at Stage Left Theatre

No Apologies is a two-part "Gay Writers Concert Reading Series." The description may be somewhat misleading; this is not an evening of gay writers reading from their work but of actors performing short stories by gay writers. But which gay writers? What exactly is a gay writer? No Apologies doesn't feature work by writers who are simply gay, but by proponents of "gay fiction," a genre that has emerged over the last decade and a half with the support of various magazines (some "legit," like Christopher Street and the James White Review, and some adult-oriented sex mags that also publish literary fiction) as well as writers' workshops and alternative and, increasingly, mainstream publishing houses.

People trying to establish a sense of gay culture from pre-gay-liberation literature have generally had to turn either to little-known, generally not very good underground work ("Paul was different from the other boys . . . ") or else writings that reflected the oppressiveness of being homosexual in an antihomosexual society, either by tackling the topic head-on, as Radclyffe Hall did in The Well of Loneliness, or through literary camouflage, as (at least by some critics' lights) such authors as W. Somerset Maugham and Tennessee Williams did. (Was Of Human Bondage really about a male hustler? Was Blanche Du Bois a drag queen?) With the forthright attitudes about homosexuality that emerged in the years after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a generation of sensitive and well-educated gay writers chose to eschew such veiled approaches in favor of recording, candidly if often too self-consciously, an emerging identity at once individual and communal. Much of this gay fiction centers on relationships and the search for self-understanding; much of it is well written but nearly unbearably self-absorbed. City Lit's associate artistic director Michael Salvador, who has directed and adapted these two full-length readers' theater evenings, has worked with good taste and great care to avoid the worst pitfalls that plague the gay fiction category and to arrange the selections so that they reflect each other without too overtly commenting on each other. Still, the insistent focus on emotional relationships as the core of gay identity gets a little monotonous. You won't find the sexual radicalism of a William Burroughs here, or the pointed sociopolitical barbs of a Gore Vidal, or the rich historical perspectives of a Christopher Isherwood, or the acute moral introspectiveness of an E.M. Forster or a Mary Renault. (You certainly won't find anything close to a lesbian sensibility here at all, though neither is there anything so explicitly sexual as to be off-putting to people other than gay men.)

What you will find are intelligently written slices of contemporary middle-class urban lives--people in the process of learning about themselves and, in particular, learning to overcome the effects of a social opprobrium they have felt even before they understood what it was that made them different. Unlike any other minority group, gays have to cope not only with discrimination and persecution from the outside world but with internal emotional isolation and a sense of alienation from even their own families; the resulting guilt, self-hate, fear of rejection, fear of intimacy, occasional gender confusion, and other psychic scars are not to be lightly regarded.

The stories in No Apologies address these concerns with varied tones--but not so varied as to make for a performance of sharp rises and falls in feeling; the two programs in this series, and certainly the selections within each program, feel very much of a piece with each other. Part one, "Friends at Evening," juxtaposes a story about a desperately confused Catholic college kid coming out to himself ("Catholicism is somewhat like hepatitis," comments the narrator; "once you've had it, you never quite lose it") with one about two middle-aged men, lovers for 20 years, looking back at their lives and the sacrifices they've had to make because they are homosexuals. Part two, "Xmas in the Apple," opens with Graham Jackson's bittersweet "Charm," about two lovers pulled apart by life (their separate aspirations), and then follows with Sam D'Alessandro's almost unbearably painful "Nothing Ever Just Disappears," about two lovers pulled apart by death.

Death, of course, is an unavoidable theme in gay fiction in the age of AIDS; in arranging the two programs, Salvador has chosen to end them with rather long stories that cast light on the gay New York mentality before and after 1981, the year the crisis began to be noticed. Interestingly, he ends the second program (and thus, theoretically, the whole series) with a pre-AIDS piece: Felice Picano's "Xmas in the Apple," which cross-cuts between the Christmas day/night activities of a pair of contented gay yuppie lovers and a sour, compulsively cruising loner. While the loner downs liquor and 'ludes and hunts for sex, the lovers cook turkey dinner for family and reflect on their formerly promiscuous lifestyles; without buying into any "that'll-teach-'em" moralism, it's impossible to regard these characters now without considering the crushing impact AIDS would inevitably have on their lives.

Paralleling the Picano story in the series' first program is "Friends at Evening," by the pseudonymously named Andrew Holleran. Told with a Fitzgeraldian elegance (I am not the first critic to make this comparison; Holleran's novel Dancer From the Dance was widely tagged "the gay Great Gatsby"), "Friends at Evening" is not only the most serious story in either half of No Apologies, and the best written, but also the only one that is about something else besides--other than, in addition to--the state of being gay. As he follows four friends on their way to another friend's funeral (with a straight narrative flow that contrasts nicely to the cinematic intercutting of "Xmas in the Apple"), Holleran evokes, with aloof but never arch wit and sometimes remarkable beauty, "the eclectic chaos of 20th-century culture." Holleran's territory is specifically modern New York--a city in which the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur is a quick trip by taxi from the Soul Heaven disco, and in which romance can be as exalted as calling an Ecuadorian cab driver "proud descendant of Atahualpa" and as raw as an unsolicited obscene call on a street-corner pay phone. The gay men in Holleran's prose talk, yes, about homosexuality, and oppression and lust and self-discovery; but they do so in the context of observing, and trying to understand, the larger world they live in. It's an outlook gay fiction generally, and certainly No Apologies, could use more of.

Not to be ignored are two other pieces--John Mitzel's almost Swiftian "The Last Piece of Trade in America," a satirically skewed fable about a butch hustler transformed into "decadent fluff" by other decadent fluffs (Mitzel is poking fun at both antigay moralists and the excesses of style with which gay men often seem to be trying to confirm their enemies' opinions), and "Letter to Mama," a short, very sincere missive from a gay San Franciscan to his southern mother who has joined up with Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" crusade. The Mitzel story, a refreshing change of pace from the other stories' naturalism, appears in the second program; "Letter to Mama," culled from Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City, is delivered in both programs, with each member of the four-man cast taking turns with it.

I don't want to go into great detail about the individual stories; they certainly deserve your attention, and as with most fiction the pleasure is in reading them for oneself--or hearing them read, which brings them to vivid emotional life in a way the page cannot. This is certainly true of the fine performance given by the four-man ensemble here. Larry Baldacci is the best of the lot, delivering the most varied characterizations and seeming the least restricted by the limitations of the readers' theater format (the actors sit or stand with their scripts and simply read aloud, with occasional--and occasionally misguided--lighting and musical effects). But the others are all quite clear and have specific moments to shine: Stephen Forsling, though ill-advised in his naturalistic approach to narrating Andrew Holleran's highly stylized prose, is very strong as the bitter and disappointed cruiser in the Felice Picano story; Dan Lawrence, an engaging, bearish-looking fellow, is quite droll in John Mitzel's fantasy; and Michael Salvador is absolutely superb in what could be a maudlin characterization, the bereaved lover in "Nothing Ever Just Disappears."

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