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.

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Marshall W. Mason