In March 2012, Ian MacKinnon presented a gay history one-man show at Moving Arts in Silver Lake, named Gay Hist-Orgy! Parts 1 & 2. It was a salacious performance that chronicled people since the ancient Greek era who have changed the world for the better and who happened to be gay, whether they knew it or not.
It's been more than a year since that show but the image still lingers of MacKinnon reading an excerpt from Moby Dick — an exegesis on whale sperm, how it was stirred and slipped through sailors' fingers — that MacKinnon used as evidence for Herman Melville being gay.
MacKinnon was strident and mocking of his own stridency. He gave lectures and indulged in sexual double entendres as though he were a horny teenager.
As for the other parts of the play, let's just say there were graphic snippets from porn videos and an obsession with lust that worked in conjunction with MacKinnon's academic treatise that legacy comes not from sperm or spawn but from what one accomplishes. There was also the suggestion that having kids and raising families actually serves as a distraction from doing things that change the world, hence MacKinnon's conclusion that the majority of people who accomplished things that changed history were gay.
Now comes a piece co-written by Sean Chandler and David Leeper, performed by Leeper and directed by David Zak. It goes by the title At the Flash and is similarly a one-man show about the history of the gay movement. The show is a Chicago import, booked into the Celebration Theatre for only two weeks. It closes this weekend.
Aside from its concern with gay history, At the Flash is largely the antithesis of Gay Hist-Orgy. The performer does not lecture, or quip, or bare his chest, or parade in a buttocks-revealing leather thong — as did MacKinnon. There are no phalluses on display, even digital ones, nor is there a single ribald joke.
Rather, as co-writer and performer, attired in black, Leeper disappears inside the skins of five characters, all gay, who occupy space at the Flash, a former gay dive bar that's being converted into a nouvelle cuisine restaurant and gay community center. Furthermore, each of the characters exists a decade apart. This allows us to witness the evolution of the bar as well as evolving American attitudes toward gay life. These are portraits that add up to a gallery, scenes from a bar that accrue into a world view.
On the spartan stage consisting of a chair and a set piece representing a bar, there are two especially marvelous aspects on display. One is the play's schematics — scenes that slide back and forth in time in order to juxtapose the plights of the quintet across 50 years.
Richard, a married man with children, frequents the Flash in 1965, when the place is tawdry. He speaks slowly and clearly, in rich tones, to the other barflies with whom he's seeking clandestine friendships. Richard brims with a blend of self-loathing and desire, a blend that lands him in the arms of another man, dancing slow. A police raid will change his life.
A decade or so later, we meet Sparkles, a tranny makeup artist serving as a guide and mentor to a newcomer. Then, in the 1980s, the Flash has turned disco and Leeper morphs into Derrick, a young clubber unable to rebound from being dumped. Derrick's life is one of noisy desperation.
Mona shows up in the 1990s. She's a lesbian civil-rights activist and college professor, trying to get signatures to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. The reasons for her activism are deeply personal, as she was denied visitation rights to a mortally ill long-term lover.
The current era is represented by Rod, the guy who's revitalizing the club. He opens and closes the performance, pleading with his capricious chef on the night of a star-studded gala, and trying to cope with the liquor delivery service that gets the ratio of scotch and vodka cases backward. Rod still chafes that his parents won't come to the gala, where he could prove to them that his being gay is not necessarily a verdict of loneliness and failure. Rod's dad can't face the truth of his misdiagnosis, and his mom can't face down her husband.
The second marvel is Leeper's sly, subtle transitions between characters through idiosyncratic voices. Mona and Derrick are nasal, while Richard's utterances come from the chest, as his body language is both muted and macho — contrasted against, say, Sparkles, whose wrists spend much of the time airborne. Mainly, though, each has a different voice.
There's one scene near the end of the 80-minute performance in which Leeper stands in place and slides from character to character, giving each a second or two of stage time. This is where his vocal dexterity becomes so apparent.
Yet, in the writing, At the Flash doesn't do much to push beyond stereotypes. The characters are tenderly and compassionately drawn, yet you'll find yourself saying, yes, I know him or her. That burst of recognition would be a coup if the show were a satire, but it's not. The intent is to portray scenes from life through these victims of bigotry. Still, because of the clever timespan of half a century, the sum is more than its parts.
Actor Michael Kearns used to do these kinds of solo shows that presented a gallery of characters, and though Kearns inevitably would drift toward flamboyance in his portrayals, the crises the characters were enduring more often than not took you by surprise. Most of Leeper's characters have trodden a well-worn road. If that road veered in unexpected directions, At the Flash would be great. Because of Leeper's individuated characters, his restraint and his intelligence, his show is nonetheless very good.
AT THE FLASH | By Sean Chandler and David Leeper | Presented by Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Wed.-Thurs. & Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 26 | (323) 957-1884 | celebrationtheatre.com