Playwright David Dillon and I must go to different parties. He based a play, appropriately titled Party (currently produced by Gaydar Productions at the Loring Playhouse), on one such soiree he had attended at which--gasp!--a group of gay men played a variation of truth or dare and by the end of the night had stripped to their birthday suits. I've been to parties that started this way, and they always seem to end with half of the room on the floor in a ketamine-induced stupor while the other half clambers over the furniture, ranting amphetamine-fueled stream-of-consciousness monologues about their latest mercurial romances.
I'm not unduly fond of such parties, and wouldn't remain for long, but inevitably my ride home is barricaded in the bathroom, telling lies about meeting Matthew Broderick at a cast party for Election, to the stupefaction of a 19-year-old on leave from the military. Playwright David Dillon's party, by comparison, includes same-sex couples dancing to Karen Carpenter and a remedial lecture about the difference between a soundtrack and an original cast recording. Oh, such a bacchanal!
I know I'm supposed to comment on the play that I actually saw, and not the play that I expected to see, but, as George G. Nathan once said, "The drama critic who is without prejudice is on the plane with the general who does not believe in taking human life." And my prejudices are well defined, informed by my own peculiar kismet when it comes to parties. After all, my recent birthday party at a theater in Omaha was very nearly ruined when a massive crowd of drunken drag queens wandered in, remaining until the sun had just started to peer over the Missouri River and leaving behind a mass of spilt beer bottles that took me three hours to clean up. This is the way my party went in Omaha, and this is the way my parties always go, and can I be blamed if I expected that David Dillon's Party--set in Chicago, no less--might go similarly?
There is theatrical precedent. After all, the first major work of modern gay theater was Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, about a birthday party that goes stupendously wrong. In fact, Dillon's Party resembles Crowley's at first blush. Both feature a cast of recognizable types, making me think that modern gay theater is nothing more than a variation of commedia dell'arte, which created an endless number of plays using the same stock characters. Nowadays, however, leathermen and droll musical theater aficionados have replaced the older Arlecchino and Pulcinella. Both Boys and Party share a young naïf whom the remainder of the cast delight in taunting (cruelly in the former play, gently in the latter). Both use parlor games, of sorts, as a tool for exploring the gay experience, although Crowley, writing in 1968, found mostly loathing and spite, while Dillon, writing in the early Nineties, found that "life is wonderful, having friends is fabulous, falling in love is fantastic." I'm not being fatuous about the moral lessons of Party either; that quote is right off the program for the play.
Mawkish, maybe, but the playwright had his reasons. Dillon has explained that he wrote Party as a reaction to the glut of gay-themed plays about misery: "If they were not about AIDS or death or dying, they were about homophobia or bashing or the pain involved in coming out or the rejection of family or being closeted," Dillon writes on his Web page, www.daviddillon.com. "If they dealt with relationships, they were abusive or dysfunctional ones. If they dealt with sex, they were about hustlers and backrooms or were simply seedy or exploitive with no real message. And these were not just the dramas--even the comedies would lead one to believe that every gay man leads a wretched life due to his sexuality." So Dillon set out to write something light and frothy that would say, "Despite everything, it is still fabulous to be gay."
Well, that all depends on your definition of fabulous, I guess. For Dillon, it's a gay priest named Ray (played here by Chris Maltby, grinning as though he has just thought of a wicked joke that he mustn't tell, and then telling the joke anyway). Ray obsesses about show tunes, makes endless lewd remarks, argues the relative merits of Madonna as Eva Peron, and speaks knowingly of such icons as Liza and Barbra, insisting that no gay man worth his salt would refer to either by anything other than her first name. He cuts so flamboyant and obvious a homosexual presence that he could be the basic text in Gaydar 101. Even your Aunt Trudy who still wonders out loud why Liberace never married would point at Ray and comment on the lightness of his loafers.
Indeed, the whole of the play seems to exist on this primary a level: One character (Jon Mikkelsen in a visible leather cock ring) lies, claiming that the kinkiest thing he does is water sports--an activity that must be explained to the youngest member of the ensemble in a scene that is about as credible as the sequence in Diary of Anne Frank in which Jews explain Hanukkah to each other. But if his love of water sports is a lie, what is his particular predilection? Fisting? Sailing-ship flogging? Mummification? What is the hanky code for that?