By now there are few excuses for not having seen any work by Bay Area playwright John Fisher, the UC Berkeley drama-school wonder whose Medea: The Musical was a critical smash when he brought it to the Hudson Mainstage last year. Now he’s moved The Joy of Gay Sex, a comedy that premiered professionally in late 1994 at San Francisco‘s Theater Rhinoceros, into the St. Genesius Theater. Like most of Fisher’s plays, this self-directed romp, subtitled A Tale of San Francisco and Berkeley, is a celebration of gay life that also satirizes its milieu and the stage genres that presume to speak for it. Flip, self-deflating and intellectually brash, Joy is yet another take on the dating and mating games, but with unpredictable turns.
The story, set in San Francisco and across its bay, is narrated, memoirlike, by a proudly and loudly out egotist named Nick (Nicholas Gilhool — in the Fisher style, his and the other characters are named after the actors portraying them). Nick believes that gays are ”the most human, the most sophisticated, the least animal of the sexes“ because they are defined by biological desire, not procreational need. He wears this opinion on his shoulder like a permanent chip, making him ornery to friends and an irritant to colleagues in the UC Berkeley history department, from which he is trying to escape with a doctorate.
The thesis of Nicholas‘ dissertation, in fact, is that Jesus Christ was gay — an idea that rankles his closeted academic adviser, Paul (Paul Cady), a Nobel-winning hotshot professor who’s basking from the glow of a recent Vanity Fair profile. For Nick, Paul‘s crime, besides having slept with Nick sometime in the past, is not sharing his belief that it is ”the duty of every faggot historian to write about faggot issues in history.“ Nick perversely delights in making Paul uncomfortable — whether by arguing the existence of homosexuality in ancient Judea (”If anybody ever produces Christ’s g-string,“ Nick announces, ”I‘ll prove conclusively that he was a faggot.“) or outing the professor whenever he spots him on the town with a male date. One such encounter, in an upper Market Street cafe, sets the play (and our eyes) rolling when Nick brusquely interrupts a quiet evening Paul has been sharing with a student named Gabe (Gabriel Macen).
As the play unfolds and Nick begins making more eye contact with Gabe, our young historian’s best pal, the nominally straight Elsa (Elsa Wolthausen), is swept into lesbian lust by a heavenly apparition named Kent (Kent Masters-King) — a statuesque dancer who immediately casts a spell over her. Before long, Nick and Gabe become lovers, as do Elsa and Kent. Everyone seems well-adjusted in their third sex–ness except, ironically, Nick — who rages against all his friends at a drag party he‘s thrown, because their costumes don’t measure up to his standards; then, later, at a dedication at the city‘s Museum of Modern Art, he drunkenly insults everyone in sight because the entertainment isn’t openly gay enough for his tastes.
Joy is a play about little setbacks and big realizations. By its end, Nick and Elsa find biology taking a back seat to the domesticating ”needs“ Nick so huffily dismissed in the evening‘s introduction. Nick gets his comeuppance, inevitably, when his ego stands between Gabe and himself. For his part, Gabe becomes enamored with a sweet-natured dancer named Darryl (Darryl Stephens) who steals a chunk of Joy while performing The Passion of Little Feather in a cloying, politically correct dance program for something called the People’s Ecumenical Dance Theater.
Here, Fisher shows off the manicured talons of an accomplished satirist, sending up both amateur choreography and the earnest presumptions of Berkeley‘s cultural radicals. The Joy of Gay Sex, which actually has very little onstage lovemaking (and even this has an almost childlike, slumber-party tone to it), once more shows its playwright to be a shrewd observer of local social-history-in-the-making. With knowing references to such San Francisco–specific signifiers as Cafe Flore, SFMOMA, and the Black and White Ball, Fisher employs these locations as authenticating backdrops while preserving them as cultural landmarks in the amber prose of his humor. Fisher has always shown a passion for chronicling past events, and it’s tempting to conclude that he dreams of becoming his city‘s poet-historian. Combat! and Partisans!, Fisher’s earlier, World War II–set works, were about, respectively, gays in the military and the Jewish resistance in Poland, and were obsessively researched and fervently staged. I can easily see Fisher writing a musical about San Francisco‘s 1934 longshoremen’s strike — and he might be the only person with the deft wit and breadth of knowledge to pull it off.
For all that, The Joy of Gay Sex isn‘t without design flaws. Fisher stumbles over a somewhat shaky story structure. In this staging, he ends Act 1 at the Black and White Ball, after giving us only the faintest whiff of conflict — at Nick’s disastrous drag party. By introducing the story‘s ”trouble“ (Nick’s drunkenly bellicose tirades at SFMOMA) at the top of Act 2, he has, in effect, needlessly turned the first half of Joy into a stand-alone one-act and deprived his audience of any reason to return after intermission. Less damaging, though just as baffling, is Fisher‘s decision to introduce Paul twice — the first time in Cafe Flore, the second (and, driven by Star Wars’ Darth Vader theme, more flamboyant) time later, on campus. These may sound like pedantic quibbles, but watching these glitches makes one realize that there really are reasons for some rules.
Happily, there are better reasons to see The Joy of Gay Sex than its narrative flow. Fisher seems to have effortlessly staged his show as though he were directing the characters themselves rather than the actors impersonating them, and the result is a collegial effort marked by strong performances. The evening clearly belongs to Gilhool, an adorable monster (and a projection of the playwright-director, who works the spotlight from the audience seats) whose narration is both seductive and suspect. Gilhool receives strong support from the ensemble, which also includes Peter Denlo, Jane Paik and J.T. Tepnapa. Wolthausen, whose rusty-voiced, hard-edged innocence and shifting facial expressions suggest a Lynda Barry cartoon character brought to life, turns in an especially endearing performance. Fisher makes use of every inch of space here, and this cramped venue is perfect for his comic-book backdrops of Berkeley‘s Campanile, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco City Hall dome. A word of advice, though: Arrive early, as the mere ability to adjust one’s shoulders, let alone find two seats together, becomes problematic whenever single chairs are added to accommodate latecomers. (Every time I go to the St. Genesius, I imagine this is what sitting inside an animal cracker box would be like.)
Special mention should be made of Paul Cady‘s musical direction and fine piano accompaniment to a list of standards sung by the cast, tunes ranging from Cole Porter to George Gershwin, which, with Stephens and Fisher’s energetic disco choreography, capture the hopeful, insurgent mood of a city that even the jaded Nick refers to as ”the brightest star in the firmament.“