This New York theatre season will be remembered as the year of the penises. The age of the gay play has arrived with a vengeance, and with an unprecedented display of genitalia. With five gay plays currently playing on New York stages, it is clear that repressing one's behavior is having a prolific effect creatively, even on mainstream culture.

Homosexuality was a taboo subject on the American stage (except for the sly and sophisticated insinuations of Noel Coward) until the 1950s. Then, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy risked examining the pain caused by unjust accusations of perversion. It was considered a breakthrough at the time.

Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof dealt with an all-American football hero's fear of being a homo, but it was not until Mart Crowley's 1968 comedy The Boys in the Band that the public was allowed to peer into the closet. For the first time, we were permitted to see openly gay characters onstage, as brilliant in their humor as they were pathetic in their despair.

The advent of AIDS initially had a chilling effect, but by 1985, when my production of William M. Hoffman's As Is and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart opened, the subject of homosexuality was subsumed by the more urgent need to deal with the plague.

AIDS has come to dominate the better part of the past decade, peaking with the titanic Pulitzer Prize and double Tony Award winner Angels in America and the Academy Award-winning performance of Tom Hanks in the 1993 film Philadelphia.

Queer sage Robert Patrick once defined a gay play as "a play attracted to another play of the same sex." I don't know whether the five plays in New York right now would like each other, but their homosexual mnages luring the affluent gay crowd back to the theatre.

Still playing on Broadway for a few more weeks, Love! Valour! Compassion! is slated to start filming this fall. Author Terrence McNally is the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play, and John Glover for Best Supporting Actor in 1995.

While two characters out of eight have AIDS, the focus of the play is on the texture of the lives of the couples--infidelity, the problems of aging and the rewards of boredom. Chekhovian in method, it uses humor to trace the quiet connections of lives to the changes around them, in sickness and in health, and provides subtle richness and insight.

The play's full-frontal male nudity probably helped it go directly to film, rather than on a tour of America's cities, where nudity is not always as welcome as it has been this year in New York.

Like a fraternal twin, Party by David Dillon also features an all-male cast, but, whereas the nudity in Love! Valour! Compassion! is occasional and realistically motivated, a good deal of this hysterical romp is played in the buff after only the flimsiest setups. More sexploitation piece than play, Party originated in Chicago, where it ran more than two years.

Beyond the basic situation described by the title, there is almost no plot. Seven gay men (described as the Brady Bunch on Fire Island) who have known each other for various lengths of time are getting together in the apartment of two platonic roommates. (The apartment displays posters of Gwen Verdon, Debbie Allen, Ann Reinking, Chita Rivera, Juliet Prowse and Vanessa Williams, all in sequential productions of Sweet Charity.)

Although the characters represent a reasonable cross-section of types--aging chorus boy, aspiring actor new to the city, leather man, designer, advertising man--none comes equipped with anything like a three-dimensional history. The funniest character is Ray, a bitchy queen played to perfection by Ted Bales. Ray has recently become a priest, but this odd fact is never investigated for the inherent contradictions of values it implies.

Indeed, none of the characters reveals any subtext. It's all on the surface. But it is a very funny surface. The totally male audience at the Sunday matinee I attended howled with laughter from beginning to end.

The partygoers play a variation on Madonna's "Truth or Dare." The facts demanded are along the lines of "How many times a week do you masturbate?" The fantasies requested inevitably lead to stripping. "Show us your dick!" squeals one, and the entire party erupts in the chant: "Free Willie! Free Willie!"

Party's audience once would have been found at the baths, happily exchanging fluids. Now these men must sublimate, and so an off-Broadway matinee offers them the chance to see two handsome, naked men kissing. It is soft-core stuff (there are no erections--at least onstage), but it is blatantly erotic and risqu. Party is a ghetto play for gay men, and will probably continue to attract an audience for whom it provides a safe sexual outlet. Another import is The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me . . . , a menagerie of colorful characters skillfully enacted by Dan Butler (best known as Bulldog from the television sitcom Frasier). This play originated in Los Angeles, and is one of the rare transfers to the Big Apple that hasn't been rejected like a transplanted organ by New York's parochial critics.

With this one-man show, Butler has given himself a spectacular showcase for his thespian prowess, burning up the stage with insightful portraits of so many different men it becomes a virtual Spoon River Anthology of gay life.

Among the guys who flit across the stage in memorable vignettes are an opera queen; a volunteer food deliverer for housebound AIDS patients; a conservative and meanspirited, self-hating homosexual with a William Buckley intonation; and a strapping heterosexual in a blue-collar bar, who can't believe his ears: "You? You're shittin' me. I would never have thought it. Say, was you ever attracted to me?"

Slipped in among all the stories is the one autobiographical incident from which the piece gets its title. Butler shows us a picture of his father, and plays a tape recording of his mother. Neither parent finds it easy to accept the news their son brings them. The clichd response of the father is familiar to almost any gay man, who can readily supply the remainder of the sentence to: "The only thing worse you could have told me . . ."

Butler will be leaving the show in a couple of weeks to return to Frasier; he'll be succeeded by diving champion Greg Louganis. Whether the Olympian can fulfill the demands of this tour de force remains to be seen, but Louganis has long aspired to become an actor, and this will put him to the test as surely as the Olympics did.

Far less successful is James Edwin Parker's 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night, an attempt to examine the emptiness that results from desperate sexual encounters. As the title suggests, symbolism hovers heavily in the air. Detail by painful detail, we are privy to an intimate one-night stand between a lonely young man and his indifferent pickup.

The play begins at 4:30 in the morning, after the boys have met in a bar, sexually satisfied themselves and gone to sleep. Daryl is hungry for a more romantic liaison, so he coyly awakens Peter, convinced that Peter can't even remember his name.

Daryl feels that in the last ten years, he has become no more than "emotional road kill." He is seeking a relationship that is "intellectual, emotional, spiritual and sexual." Peter wants to get some sleep, and is not ready for the romantic illusions demanded by his pursuer. At last he decides he would be better off leaving. He tries to give Daryl some good advice: "Strength is sexier than weakness," but by that time Daryl's obsequious self-pity is such a turnoff that there can be no redemption. Peter's parting shot is intended as ironic, showing that he is not the insensitive piece of meat he has been accused of being. He turns at the door, and intones: "Goodbye, Daryl!"

The problem is that we have known this would be the ending, and have waited for it with increasing impatience. The attractive actors are Robert Gomes and Michael Curry, but nothing they do can instill humor or dimension to this turgid exercise.

At the other end of the universe, one of the most beautiful plays to premiäre in Phoenix this past season was the evocative Lonely Planet by Stephen Dietz. Having enjoyed the play here, I was eager to assess its fate in New York at the hands of different artists.

I was totally unprepared for the power of the Circle Repertory Company's production. Under the brilliant guidance of director Leonard Foglia, Lonely Planet is a much richer and deeper play than it had seemed locally.

Produced much more simply than in Phoenix, the set suggested a small map store by just a single case for a map file. The tiny room was surrounded by a cyclorama of the cosmos, giving the play a context that was profound in its implications.

Denis O'Hare played the role of Carl as a committed activist. The collection of chairs he has amassed after the deaths of his friends becomes a passionate statement, and a challenge to the sanguine map-store owner, Jody. The two men still play the games that are the basis of their platonic relationship, but the symbolism that weighted the script with such ponderous insistence has been pushed aside by subtlety and charm. The Actors Theatre of Phoenix production emphasized the absurdity of the piece, at considerable cost to the script, which seemed dangerously coy and derivative of both Ionesco and Beckett.

In New York, the play seems totally fresh and original. We believe in the very real story of two friends struggling to cope with the unspoken crisis that oppresses their lives. This world is not an abstract theatrical place, but the very world we inhabit when we leave the theatre. This map store might be next door. The power and realism of the performances endow the play with a grace and depth not apparent in Phoenix.

At the end of the play, Jody discovers Carl's chair--a turquoise and chrome kitchen chair from the 1950s. The moment we see it, we understand that Carl has died, and the scene that follows, in which the two men communicate on the telephone, happens only in Jody's mind. Thus, when Jody leaves Carl alone in the dark of the map shop, Jody's line, "I'll see you in the morning" refers to the great and long-awaited cosmic dawn, when we will all be reunited with friends who have left us prematurely. It is a profoundly moving moment, with the cosmos swirling in the background, while Joe Cocker wails the great Dylan anthem "I Shall Be Released." This is the stuff of great theatre, straight or gay. It promises a time when we can move beyond the prejudice of our age to take on the common enemies of humanity, like ignorance, intolerance, and, yes, disease.


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