Provocative concept, mixed-bag script
|Pride Films and Plays and Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Vigilante justice is a loaded issue – law enforcement hasn’t quite caught up in some areas, but doesn’t violence just beget more violence? Predictable as this lesson can be, it’s a great subject for a play, especially one whose opening scene features two gay men sipping wine and quoting Steel Magnolias while waiting for a nefarious incident to unfold. If only Angry Fags was this strong for the next two hours; however, a mixed bag of a script and some questionable acting and directing choices muddle a very powerful message.
Bennett (Kevin Webb) and Cooper (James Nedrud) are best friends and roommates living in Atlanta. One afternoon Cooper comes home with a funny story about Bennett’s ex-boyfriend Sammy, but things quickly get serious when the men find out that Sammy was violently attacked moments after Cooper saw him drunkenly leave a bar. When Bennett’s boss, out lesbian senator Allison (Kelli Walker), refuses to even mention her former volunteer’s name in a statement – citing her in-progress reelection campaign – a chance meeting in a parking lot leads Cooper to take justice into his own hands. But what happens next? How can Bennett and Cooper turn a single incident into an active statement from the gay community? Does it really get better, or do they need to make it better – and how much is too much?
In the press release and program for Angry Fags, Topher Payne’s script is described as “Oscar Wilde meets Quentin Tarantino.” It’s easy to hear the playwright’s influences in the characters’ dialogue, and there are many sharp, witty moments of levity. After all, who doesn’t love Steel Magnolias? Unfortunately, the gravity of Angry Fags’ inciting incident (and subsequent violent acts) is sorely lacking. I was told that Bennett and Cooper were angry, that they wanted justice served by any means necessary, but I never saw or heard it. And after a plot twist in the play’s final moments that comes out of nowhere, it became clear to me that Payne wrote himself into a corner and saw no other resolution than to up the play’s considerable body count. What sets Quentin Tarantino apart as a writer and director is that the violence he creates, though plentiful, is always deliberate. (Think of Shoshanna in “Inglorious Basterds”: who wouldn’t be hell-bent on revenge after watching their whole family get gunned down by a milk-drinking Nazi whose cheerful good-bye insinuates they’re next?) Payne has the provocative subject matter and the witty dialogue for which both of his influences are known – what he doesn’t have is the convincing anger and desperation that prompts vigilante justice.
There’s a lot to like about Angry Fags: as mentioned previously, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and the movement fast-paced. The audience is thrown right into the world of the play by Jordan Phelps crooning upbeat protest songs like John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change,” surrounded by Senator Allison Haines’ reelection campaign signs, before the senator enters and enthusiastically shakes hands. Alex Thompson’s videography and G. “Max” Maxin IV’s media design punctuate each transition with campaign ads from Allison’s conservative opponent Peggy Musgrove (Joan McGrath) and interviews with anti-gay politicians who become the next targets for Cooper and Bennett’s wrath. Sound designer Kallie Noelle Rolison’s Madonna-based soundtrack is at once catchy and menacing, and Maxin’s scenery picks up little touches from the script with flair.
Sadly, the acting isn’t quite as strong as the production values. The cast boasts impressive bios and I’ve seen several of them in other shows, so I wish director Derek Van Barham had given them a stronger hand. Only McGrath stands out, giving Peggy Musgrove a genteel Southern air and genuine kindness that contrast with her hardline anti-gay beliefs. Also, many lines of dialogue were dropped or flubbed to the point of being noticeable, which is inexcusable in Chicago theater, and the Southern dialects are so weak and inconsistent, it might be more effective if they’re not attempted at all.
Given more time and at least one rewrite, Angry Fags could be a stirring, provocative play. The script has all the right ingredients: sympathetic characters, issues at once personal and political, peppered with violence, pop culture references and fun music. Though Pride Films and Plays’ production at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre is worth seeing, go thinking of it as more of a work-in-progress.
Angry Fags continues through April 25th at Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted (map). Tickets are $20, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through Steppenwolf.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at PrideFilmsandPlays.com. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Courier
Dennis Frymire (Detective Preston), Jude Hansen (Adam Lowell), Lisa Herceg (Kimberly Phillips), Joan McGrath (Peggy Musgrove), James Nedrud (Cooper Harlow), Kelli Walker (Senator Allison Haines), Kevin Webb (Bennett Riggs), Jordan Phelps (Preshow Campaign Singer)
Understudies: June Thiele (Haines), Jordan Phelps (Bennett/Adam), Gwen Tulin (Kimberly/Musgrove), Jamie Smith (Cooper/Preston)
behind the scenes
Derek Van Barham (director), G. “Max” Maxin IV (scenic and media design), Raquel Adorno (costume design), Rebecca A. Barrett (lighting design), Kallie Noelle Rolison (sound design), Dina Klahn (properties design), Nick Stockwell (fight choreographer), Alex Thompson (videographer), Rayme Silverberg (production manager/promotional photography), Landon Welsh (technical director), Anne Wilson (dramaturg), Sammi Grant (dialect coach), Derek Bertelsen (assistant director), Johanna Polzin (marketing), Alissa Pagels (promotional photography), Caitlin O’Rourke (stage manager), Tanous El-Karah, Emmalee Dixon (production interns), Michael Courier (photos)