David Dillon's Party is a play that absolutely should not work. The script is sloppy, repetitive, baldly sentimental at times, and utterly without structure. It has no central action, no dramatic conflict, and no discernible theme. And it goes on for nearly two and a half hours.
But it's a delight. It's embarrassingly simple in its conceit. Seven gay friends gather to play a game called "Fact, Fiction, Fantasy, or Flip," with rules similar to those of Truth or Dare. Depending upon the card a person draws, he must either answer a personal question, act out someone else's fantasy, or make someone else act out that fantasy. The game makes for a lot of sexy foolishness and a good deal of soul baring. It's the kind of play I normally hate, especially since it's performed in the pseudonaturalistic style it seems every gay playwright employs. And since the first 20 minutes of the show consist of a lot of unnecessary and uninteresting exposition as each guest arrives, I thought my worst fears were being confirmed.
But once the game starts, everyone onstage gets swept up in a giddy energy. The questions quickly go from the innocuous ("What's the dumbest thing you've ever done?") to the decidedly dicey ("What's the kinkiest sex act you've ever taken part in?"). The fantasies evolve similarly, so that before you know it two men are naked and approximating poses found in a porno magazine. In between, they discuss such things as coming out, safe sex, and relationships.
I know it sounds awful, but the honesty and sense of fun this cast bring to Dillon's script--he also directed--infuse the evening with so much life it's hard not to get caught up. What's more, these actors understand that Party is no masterpiece but a little gem. It contains little truths, tossed about randomly, many of which on the surface seem trite. But the actors understand that words are often inadequate, so that a hackneyed phrase often holds great emotion.
Critical to this play's success is Dillon's understanding of the difference between the erotic and the pornographic. Yes, everyone gets naked by the time the play's over. And yes, one man licks whipped cream off another's nipples. This scene, like so many others, is wonderfully erotic in its sense of play. It is emotionally full and rich, not hardened and brutal as pornography tends to be. The audience laughed during the whipped-cream scene; it looked like fun.
None of the performers act as though what they're doing is "daring." Even when one man tells of attending an orgy where he was stripped, blindfolded, and chained while 30 men caressed him, he does so with complete ease; there is no sense of confrontation with the audience, no "are you hip enough to listen to this?" attitude. At the same time this production doesn't pull any punches. When was the last time you went to the theater and saw one man take another man's underpants off with his teeth? (All you Bijou regulars needn't answer.) There is no question that part of this play's success is its sexiness. But it's a sexiness that, like the best of gay culture, laughs at its campy overindulgence and delights in its own guiltless pleasure.
Dillon also appreciates that anticipation is infinitely more titillating onstage than follow-through. For example, one character must give another, who is naked, a back rub from head to toe. Watching the two men get into position is highly charged. But the moment the actual massage starts, the focus shifts to another character talking about how much he misses snuggling with the boyfriend who recently left him. In effect the genuine love and intimacy discussed in the monologue are transferred to the massage, where it arguably belongs: these men are after all the best of friends.
Dillon's characters for the most part seem to have walked in off the street after a few drinks at Roscoe's. Of course there are the obligatory gay types: Brian (Kellum Lewis), the dancer-singer-actor; Peter (Nic Arnzen), the squeaky-clean college boy; Andy (Sam Sakharia), the cute, dumb, but sweet boy toy; and Ray (Ted Bales), the acid-tongued musical-theater queen--who in this play also happens to be a priest. But also thrown into the pot are Kevin (Jim Brown), James (Sal Iacopelli), and Philip (Robb Williams), who seem like typical workaday queers, if such a thing is possible. Every member of the cast seems perfectly at home in his character, so that the theatrical "types" are given human hearts and the "average" characters acquire a subtle individuality.
Clearly these seven men adore being onstage together; so much of their laughter feels spontaneous and genuine. But while it seems a disservice to the ensemble nature of this piece to single out any one actor, a key ingredient in the evening's success is Bales's performance. He is in essence the groups's elder statesman, as both character and actor. His technique as an actor is more sophisticated than anyone else's. Almost without exception he places his lines exactly where he wants them: he can toss off a sly put-down with deadly accuracy and then make it all OK with a loving smile. He also acts as a kind of emotional barometer. Because he's such a commanding presence onstage, he in essence watches over the more tender moments of the evening even when they're not his, giving them just enough room before rescuing them from overindulgence with a sarcastic line or simple roll of the eyes.
Party could use some editing, if only to keep it under two hours, which is about all the play can support. But paradoxically its lack of structure is essential to its success. The script's looseness gives the actors a necessary freedom, and it invites the audience to play along, leaving the Big Issues for some other night.
It may be trite to say, but it's wonderful to see a play in which being gay is not an issue, a problem, or a statement. Instead Party begins with the premise that being gay is not only all right but downright fabulous and goes from there. And goes and goes and goes.