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Heaven Scent

Cologne, Tony Abatemarco‘s solo performance now running at the Tiffany Theater, has nothing to do with a certain German city known for its cathedral, but a lot to do with the sweet smell of success. The success examined here is not financial, political or artistic, but the victory of being able to live life, with all its pain, honestly, rather than as a self-anesthetizing lie. Subtitled The Ways Evil Enters the World, Abatemarco’s story takes place on a prehistoric plain of scrub pines and brutish Neanderthals -- which is to say, on the middle of Long Island during the last half of the 1960s. Somewhere between Montauk and Manhattan, Larry Rivers and Frank O‘Hara, our orphaned storyteller grows up with his sister and her husband. ”Tony,“ we’ll call him, is a handsome, inquisitive and sexually precocious 14-year-old. And gay, gay, gay.

Everywhere Tony goes he‘s surrounded by a gang of horny adolescents whose restless movements would seem to have been choreographed by some suburban Jerome Robbins, boys from two-car families who nevertheless act like displaced Jets and Sharks. The lyrics of Tony’s private world, however, have gone considerably past come-on-something-don‘t-be-shy-meet-a-guy, as he secretly prowls ”a netherworld of country roads“ in search of anonymous back-seat blowjobs.

If such cruising makes Tony a bit of a feral hustler, he also has his soft side that casts him as a Huck Finn sort of kid who slyly studies the crotch bulges of his friends at a neighbor’s pool. When an 18-year-old named Bobby whips his member out to be serviced by a pool vacuum hose before a crowd of impressed boys, Tony is understandably smitten. Bobby is the showoff who fascinates, disappoints and, finally, validates Tony. We will find in this older boy a modern morality tale that could be called the Four Stages of Long Island Man: swaggering sex teen, ambivalent Marine, self-pitying drunk and reclaimed heterosexual.

Tony encounters Bobby in all these phases, often intimately, and through the experience evolves from teenage sexual outlaw to sexually ”out“ man. He is the one who enjoys their trysts, while Bobby, ever quick to define which bedroom behavior is ”queer“ (showering together, kissing), can‘t seem to get the deed over fast enough. Although Tony can never, of course, admit his homosexuality to the gang, he is at least comfortable with his orientation, as the others sublimate their wayward urges into frenzied, Johnny Walker--fueled stripteases or the perusal of discarded gay porn. Still, even Tony has to keep up appearances, and makes an effort in high school to date girls. It is only after he spiritually matures in the wake of the Stonewall riots that he stops the charade.

The beauty of Abatemarco’s writing is that his autobiographical character constantly evaluates people but never judges them, displaying instead a sweet, Zen-like acceptance of the world and its flawed inhabitants. The strength of his performance, directed by David Schweizer, is that it nimbly embodies a man-kid‘s escape from claustrophobic sexual conformity to the discovery of a gay universe, a process that permits Tony to finally acknowledge his identity when confronted by the draft. (He wasn’t asked, but he did tell.) Yet Cologne is not so much a coming-outof-age story as it is an affirmation of individualism and tolerance. If Abatemarco is hard on anyone, it is his youthful self: There is one disturbing scene where, Judas-like, he betrays Bobby to a pack of bullies and cannot even bring himself to look at his pummeled friend, let alone help him up off the ground. It is an unsettling moment, filling the theater with dread and revulsion, but Tony learns from it and moves on.

Abatemarco, who adapted this play from a short story he wrote, never sketches his subjects with a heavy hand. His Long Island tank town may be imprisoned by the prevailing social superstitions of the day, but it‘s no Salem, and there are no thorn-crowned martyrs in this 90-minute evening. And while Tony and others live in the shadow of a nearby mental institution, the building mercifully remains a laconic backdrop, and never mutates into a brooding metaphor. Finally, Abatemarco wisely holds off the titular fragrance, resisting the temptation to mark each scene with scents, and instead lightly splashes on references to Hai Karate, Jade East, Canoe and the like -- and this mostly at the end, when Tony enters the mirror-ball world of gay bars and discos.

Schweizer places Abatemarco on Dan McCleary’s rather barren stage of upright plywood panels, chair, AstroTurf rectangles, travel trunk -- a tableau implying basement den, domesticated nature and, of course, the baggage of memory. Despite its starkness, the set says plenty about Tony‘s Long Island milieu. Fortified by the triumph of Levittown and chastened by the lessons of Red Hook, postwar habitat planners had realized, by the 1960s, that the best way to house postwar families was in ”rustic“ tract houses laid into former forests or pastures. Tony’s home, which he calls, simply, ”the Development,“ is located in a pitilessly sterile environment he likens to Iowa. Abatemarco, dressed stylishly retro in cuffed slacks and zippered windbreaker, moves about this wasteland with a dancer‘s ease and an athlete’s confidence.

Perhaps more assertive -- and intrusive -- than the set is Julie Ferrin‘s sound design, a freebase of song snatches and koto riffs. While they hardly form an American Graffiti soundtrack, and we only get brief cuts of them, the pop tunes are the kind one always hears in theater and film whenever the ’60s need to be conjured (the Troggs‘ ”Wild Thing,“ Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan‘s ”All Along the Watchtower,“ etc.). And, considering that these and other references, both musical and not, consistently anticipate the story’s time line by a year or two (Raquel Welch posters in 1965? Donna Summer‘s ”I Feel Love“ setting the scene for Boston, 1969? I don’t think so), you have to wonder if we need such signposts at all. Perhaps more annoying is the use of a concierge bell to signal epiphanies -- a Pavlovian ploy Schweizer used in Sandra Tsing Loh‘s Aliens in America and which seems to be cropping up in other directors’ work (Metamorphoses, anyone?), suggesting that it is time to retire this gimmick unless a scene requires the appearance of a bellhop.

But these reservations are really quibbles, as the Abatemarco-Schweizer collaboration is definitely a rewarding one. Schweizer is always at his best when finding and bringing out the dramatic potential of a soloist‘s tale, while calming the more overheated moments that might seem to require shouting. Abatemarco’s narrative, the smartest evocation of a time and a place since John O‘Keefe’s Shimmer, is a fable that transforms a suburban back yard into a Garden of Olives and a Suffolk County hick town into a Washington Irving village that has been forgotten by time but not by its exiled son.

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