Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Old Boy in New Times

By Deardra Shuler

Those interested in the production, “The Old Boy,” only have a few days to see it before it closes on March 30th. Showcased on Theatre Row at the Harold Clurman Theatre, located at 410 West 42nd Street, “The Old Boy,” highlights the lives of two private boarding school roommates in their youth in the 1960s and later as adults in the early 1990s.  A revival of an A.R. Gurney play presented off-Broadway in 1991, the subject matter is no longer as startling as it was formerly, especially with President Obama and others embracing gay marriage and gay rights laws. 

The show begins in the early 1990s with effeminate minister Dexter (Tom Riis Farrell) an administrator of a preppy prep school, welcoming former student, Sam (Peter Rini), and his campaign manager Bud (Cary Donaldson), back to Sam’s former prep school to give a commencement speech and to announce an indoor tennis wing dedicated to a former student to whom Sam was once Old Boy.  An Old Boy is a seasoned classmate who takes a new student under his wing to help the new boy adjust to the school and his new surroundings. In Sam’s case, he was Old Boy to a new boy named Perry. Perry’s parents were divorced with his father pursuing his artistic talents in New York and his mother Harriet, safeguarding the family’s considerable wealth.

Through late 1960s flashback scenes, the audience is introduced to Sam and Perry during their school days.  However as an adult, we find Sam running for governor and trying to hide the fact his second marriage is faltering.  Drawn to revisit his former school, thus sidetracking the campaign trail to the consternation of Bud (who is doing his level best to keep Sam away from unneeded publicity and scandal), Sam finds that not only is he being asked to give a speech but to reunite with Perry’s mother, Harriet and his old girlfriend Alison, who had married Perry.

In flashback, Harriet (portrayed by Laura Esterman) wants desperately to get her odd-ball son into an environment filled with wholesome young men attracted to sports, girls and manly endeavors.  After meeting Sam, Harriet’s hopeful that Sam would instill in Perry all the required masculine qualities that would assure him a normal life of wine, women and eventual children.  So bent was Harriet on this quest, she refused to see Perry’s true nature.  It wasn’t long before the other boys recognized that Perry was different and began to suggest he had homosexual tendencies which Perry vehemently denied.  Attempting to dispute the rumors about Perry, Sam encouraged Perry to put aside his penchant for music, desire for the stage, and keep his focus only on the sport of tennis.  Confused about his sexuality himself, the virginal Perry, agreed to drink beer, hoot and holler and fall in line with the rest of his school mates, even winning the school’s championship tennis cup.  Back then, Sam convinced Perry to go out with Alison (Marsha Dietlein Bennet) who was feeling rejected by Sam’s womanizing ways, so decided to give Perry and his money a go. 

In order to keep her son on the straight and narrow, Harriet bribes Sam into taking a trip out West with Perry to make sure he does not join his artistic father in New York.  It was on this trip that Sam discovers Perry had had a gay affair when visiting his father in New York.  Disgusted, Sam tells Perry their friendship is over if he experiments further with homosexuality. Desperate to keep Sam’s friendship, Perry agrees to begin a serious relationship with Alison.

 After being told by Dexter that Perry’s mother was donating a huge amount of money to the school in Perry’s honor, Sam learns that Perry had died mysteriously. Bud finds out Perry died of AIDS and tells Sam its not good politics to associate with homosexual issues.  After Sam reunites with Harriet and Alison, he learns that Alison, both loved and hated Perry who she felt trapped her into a loveless marriage while he engaged in a homosexual lifestyle.  She tries to renew her passion for Sam who while tempted, remains loyal to Perry’s memory.  Sam’s feels guilty he persuaded Perry to live a life against his true nature.  Too hot an issue to take on the campaign trail, Bud threatens to leave Sam’s campaign unless he distances himself from giving a speech honoring Perry.  Sam agrees but in the end jeopardizes his political career by taking on the issue of homosexuality to assuage himself of his guilt. 

Although, the cast and direction are stellar, given today’s liberal attitude about homosexuality, this Obie Award winning play, The Old Boy doesn’t carry the shock value or impact that it did when originally presented to the New York stage in 1991.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Want to talk about race…Just Honky!

                                                                                                                                                                       By Deardra Shuler

When I was invited to review a play entitled, “Honky” taking place at Urban Stages, located at 259 West 30th Street in Manhattan, naturally I was quite curious, given the word “Honky” is generally associated with a derogatory term used to address Caucasians.  However, as I see it, Honky is a term which musters little gas to drive the hate machine.  In fact, I rarely hear the word used.  It certainly doesn’t have the power that the “N” word holds, so I thought to myself, what’s this play about.  As it turns out, it’s a dark comedy written by Greg Kalleres, a Caucasian playwright interested in and attempting to explore the muddied waters of racism.

Directed by Luke Harlan, “Honky” is about the tug of war between Thomas, a black shoe designer, (played by Anthony Gaskins) and executives of a white advertising agency that discover they can exploit consumers by selling them Thomas’s sneakers using the selling point that these sneakers are so desirable, people are willing to kill to get them. 

After a young black teen is killed for his trendy basketball sneakers, called SKY MAX, Davis, (Phillip Callen) the CEO of the shoe company that distributes the shoe, decides the shoes which were primarily being marketed to the black population, were becoming a hit with white teens since their ad campaign made the shoes a trendy must-have shoe. Davis can’t contain his glee as he sees mucho dollars could be made off black gang violence.  Blinded by money and little conscious, Davis enthusiastically informs Thomas that his Sky Max shoes, originally designed for the urban market, would now be expanded to the white market.  Davis does not understand why Thomas is not excited by the opportunity to widely distribute his shoes to both markets.  In some sense, Thomas feels he is losing control over his design and his intent to give the black consumer something exclusively made for them. 

Meanwhile, Peter, the white ad executive portrayed by Dave Droxier, feels guilt over the death of the black teen, blaming himself for writing the Sky Max ad. He conveys this fact to his gabby girlfriend Andie (Danielle Faitelson), whose often indiscrete mouth gets her in trouble.  She informs him the shoes are ugly and black folks are always killing each other over something or other, so why would he think his ad was responsible.  She tells him he is making money, so what’s the problem. Coincidentally, Andie later sees Peter as weak and directs her attention towards Thomas. Chocolate and vanilla do make for a tasty dish and before long, Andie is hooked on chocolate.  So much so, she is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her black lover, even promising to keep her mouth shut.  

Unaware he has lost his girlfriend, but no longer feeling their closeness, Peter sees a psychiatrist to deal with his guilt, only to find his psychiatrist (Arie Bianca), is a woman and black. As it turns out, Emilia, the psychiatrist, has her own issues since her practice is mainly comprised of white clients, whose issues hardly compare to the issues of her people, so she had to put on a smiling face each day when she literally feels like screaming. Emilia needs a chill pill.

Via his play, Kalleres makes an attempt to deal with the issues of race and how race is often used by advertising agencies to sell a product.  The playwright also addresses the issue of white guilt, albeit on a surface level.  What is Kalleres amusing solution to resolve the problem of racism… why take a pill! Again, advertisers find a way to profit by offering racists, and racists in denial, a way to resolve white guilt.  But they don’t stop there… black people can take the pill too.  However, Black folks take the pill to escape the oppression of racism. 

Step right up ladies and gentlemen, get your solution -- take Driscotol, the new cure-all for racism and all the ugly feelings that come along with it.  Via his pill, Dr. Driscotol, assures racist that even if they think they are not racist, they are.  But don’t worry, just one daily capsule is guaranteed to eliminate all the deep-seeded hatred and ignorance of racism.  You are hereby absolved.

Honky is unique in its scope and the sets are imaginative.  It certainly is a play that warrants discussion.  And really, any discussion that can delve into an issue so deeply sown into the fabric of America is well worth exploring.  After the play there is an opportunity to speak your mind and who knows, maybe a lesson can be learned by all.