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Talk Me a River 

Monologues in Pittsburgh, backbiting in Manhattan

Thursday, Aug 7 2003
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No one talks the talk like characters in an August Wilson play. It’s a given that Wilson’s tragic, semi-mystical narratives will reveal disturbing historical lessons about African-American life, but they also revel in the ingenuity and vitality of gab. Whether Wilson’s dialogues meander into obsessive monologues or harmless reminiscences that have no direct bearing on the action, the flow of conversation remains as important as the story itself. Gem of the Ocean is Wilson’s latest look at life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and again shows his reverence for talk, as well as his skill in crafting it for the stage.

Now appearing at the Mark Taper Forum, Gem takes place in 1904, when older blacks could still recall slavery times and the bitter failure of Reconstruction. The setting is a large but crumbling home (a gorgeous aquamarine wreck designed by David Gallo) shared by its owner, Eli (Al White), the querulous but sage Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad), and Black Mary (Yvette Ganier), who does laundry and other household chores for the two older folks. Wylie Avenue, the home’s location, is nothing if not a seething allegory. An accused thief has drowned nearby rather than turn himself in to a local constable, and the neighborhood is aflame with resentments that gather at the man’s funeral and later reach critical mass during calls for a work stoppage.

Aunt Ester is the play’s feminized center, a kind of fearless matriarch and éminence gris-gris to whom the superstitious locals come to have spells cast and their souls “washed” of evil. One such neighbor is Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks), who desperately seeks such a laundering even as he is hectored by Black Mary’s brother, Caesar (Peter Francis James), the ambitious cop who chased the alleged thief into the river. Water is everywhere in this play, and nowhere more so than in the Act 2 exorcism that Aunt Ester performs on Citizen, a spellbinding scene in which the terrible Atlantic crossing of African slaves melds into a mythic City of Bones that lies just up the river. Gem is a careful balancing act of rage, whimsy and the outré; Wilson lightly employs an arsenal of symbols that brush us like feathers, making this his most satisfying work in a long time.

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Marion McClinton directs an ensemble of actors who, performance-wise, haven’t a hair out of place and are completely in tune with their characters and Wilson’s vision. As a self-professed 285-year-old woman, Rashad’s Aunt Ester is the natural focus of our attention, and she is never less than stately — or spooky, as when she conjures the City of Bones. However, Anthony Chisholm as her would-be suitor, the old rogue Solly Two Kings, lights up the stage every time he shambles onto it wearing a caped, Union Army overcoat and slouch hat — a sartorial choice recalling whatever faded dreams the Civil War may have given birth to. (Nearly all of designer Constanza Romero’s costumes seem lined with meaning.) But even more appealing, precisely because his character is so pugnaciously repellant, is James, a bullying martinet who has found his own personal emancipation by imprisoning his fellow blacks in the white man’s laws. His denunciations of his own people, and of youth in general, are breathtaking, provoking gasps of alarm and laughter from the audience.

The first problem with Caesar and Solly is that we want more of them; the second problem is that Wilson obliges us by stretching this work into nearly three hours. For my money Gem is too long precisely because these characters are given even more good lines than they need, and so scenes don’t end where they should. But what do you do with those extra speeches? Put them in the next play, I guess — perhaps the author could somehow bring the lyrical reminiscences of Solly and the staccato imperatives of Caesar back for a 10th Pittsburgh play that takes place in the 1990s. Then again, that would leave Gem of the Ocean leaner but poorer for conversation, and, for Wilson, the talk is where his people’s legacy and destiny live — once it stops, there is only hopeless silence.

The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s 1968 play about seven gay men who meet at a New York apartment for a friend’s birthday, was one of those defining moments in contemporary art that, like a Look Back in Anger or a Waiting for Godot, make the world come to a stop. Every critical cliché about turning points and open doors was true for Crowley’s play: One minute there was nothing on the stage about homosexuality as a lifestyle and culture; the next, everything about its depiction became possible.

The Men From the Boys, receiving its Southern California premiere at the Fountain Theater, finds the “boys” 30 years later gathered once more at Michael’s — to engage in two acts of backbiting, although now they are here following a memorial service for the recently departed Larry. Joining them are three much younger men: Larry’s nurse, Rick (Steve Doss); Michael’s love interest, Scott (Seamus Dever); and Scott’s surly friend, Jason (Adam Huss). It took Crowley 30 years to pen a sequel to his landmark work, but all he has to show for his efforts is a semi-serious sitcom in which most of the “boys” have returned a little ravaged and a little (more) bitter — but mostly just older.

There are moments early on when it seems the play is going to turn into an evening of “recovery” testimony, as no less than three characters are announced “program” members, and one of them, host Michael (Alan Safier), maintains a living-room bar the size of the Lincoln Memorial. This direction is soon abandoned, though, and age becomes everyone’s obsession, especially whenever the elders put down the three young men and their take-it-for-granted attitude toward society’s tentative acceptance of homosexuality.

“Before there were marches there was a band!” hisses hyper-nelly Emory (Loren Freeman).

There’s a bit of a nostalgic rush seeing flaming Emory with his casserole dish, stolid Hank, narcissistic Harold and the others move around Michael’s townhouse; the experience is sort of like watching one of the Star Trek movies in which Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy — all now eminently gray around the temples — still show they’ve got the right stuff to the youngsters who would replace them on the Enterprise’s bridge.

But, while experience vs. youth may be a leitmotif in straight narratives, Crowley makes it clear that in gay American life, the generational gap is everything. Nearly all his characters from the first play drool over the three young studs and talk about their young boyfriends or about paying for sex. This should be The Men From the Boys’ most depressing lesson, but it’s actually played as a late-midlife fantasy that goes unquestioned. A heterosexual play in which most of the male characters in their 50s and 60s are making passes at girls in miniskirts would be booed (or laughed) off the stage.

Director Stephen Sachs, who mounted a beautiful revival of Band at the Fountain 10 years ago, seems at a loss with what to do with this wan material, except periodically have his actors pat one another on the shoulder or hug whenever death is mentioned. Even Eric Sinkkonen’s set design (with the exception of that colossal bar) is uninspiring — much of Michael’s flat is covered by monochromatic photographic wallpaper, as though reminding us that this two-dimensional play is a pale carbon copy of its source material. Most of the cast moved woodenly on opening night, with the exception of Freeman, who is an adorable hoot sashaying across the boards, and John Durbin, who gives him a run for his money as the smarmy Harold. (His birthday was the trigger for Band’s story.)

By the end, The Men From the Boys reveals a play with no viable second act, characters that have not grown wiser with the years, and a playwright who has retreated as an observer of the human condition. If The Boys in the Band was a scathing examination of a minority marginalized by self-hatred and the hostility of the larger society, Men just seems like a tinsel wreath of one-liners with no place to hang.

GEM OF THE OCEAN | By AUGUST WILSON | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; (213) 628-2772 | Through September 7

THE MEN FROM THE BOYS | By MART CROWLEY | At the FOUNTAIN THEATER, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; (323) 663-1525 Through September 28

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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