In a town that made "Banned in Boston" a national byword, the simultaneous appearance of three plays featuring full-frontal male nudity has caused hardly a ripple. The audiences are fine with it, the theater companies consider it essentially routine, and a Boston Police spokesman, asked if the department ever receives complaints about onstage nudity, just laughed.
The timing of "Angels in America," "The Little Dog Laughed," and "Blowing Whistles" at the Boston Center for the Arts has certainly made for an unusual cluster of theatrical nudity. But seeing naked male bodies onstage is nothing new - especially in plays that encompass the sex lives of gay men - and neither is the lack of controversy about it. Theaters generally warn patrons up front, so to speak, if they'll be getting an eyeful, and ticket sales for these three shows don't seem to have been affected by such announcements: "The Little Dog Laughed" (closing Feb. 16) has "exceeded expectations," according to SpeakEasy Stage Company, and "Angels in America" (closing tomorrow) has frequently sold out. "Blowing Whistles" closes today after less blockbuster sales, but the nudity doesn't seem to have been a factor.
In any case, the target market for these plays is hardly little old ladies from Peoria. And as it happens, that little old lady might have a harder time seeing naked men close to home than she would here. While Boston's "Little Dog" has two men undress each other, as specified in the script, a current Chicago production has them keep their underwear on. And it's the lack of nudity in Chicago, not the presence of it here, that has caused a flap in theatrical circles.
Chicago's About Face Theatre decided to omit the nudity despite playwright Douglas Carter Beane's objections. Beane said by phone yesterday that when the company refused to restore the nudity, which he considers essential to the scene, he initially retracted the performance rights. That would have shut down the show, but Beane ultimately agreed to let it go on, provided that director Eric Rosen issue a statement to the Chicago press that the production did not follow Beane's intentions. Rosen did so and said by telephone that he would not comment further.
"For me it was really important" to fight the issue, Beane said, because "it's important to remember that it can be a gay theater in a gay community center, and it could still censor your work as being too gay. They could do 'Take Me Out' [which includes male nudity] because it's men taking a shower, and they couldn't do a presexual moment between these two men because they're gay."
For Beane, as for many local directors, it's the meaning, intention, and effect of nudity in a given scene that matters more than the nudity itself. The Boston production, he noted, has only one actor fully expose his body; the other chose to keep his back to the audience. "And I was so fine with that," Beane said, because "there's a bigger vision involved."
Publick Theater artistic director and actor Diego Arciniegas, who has directed nude scenes but will appear nude onstage for the first time in SpeakEasy's "Some Men" later this month, said it's that sense of a larger purpose that determines whether nudity strengthens a scene or distracts from it. He recalled a Royal Shakespeare Company production where, "for no reason that I could ascertain, characters would become naked and do handstands, and it took me right out of the play."
In contrast, he said, his character's nude scene in "Some Men" is "actually about vulnerability and identity." It is also, he argued, essential to playwright Terrence McNally's chosen subject, the evolution of gay men's lives over the past several decades. And it's that subject, not its naked depiction, that was once forbidden on local stages.
"The subject matter itself would have been banned in Boston," Arciniegas said, "so the execution of course would have been."
Indeed, nudity was never the biggest issue for Boston's censors, said Tom Connolly, who has written extensively about Boston's theatrical history and teaches English at Suffolk University. Those watchdogs included the now-infamous Watch and Ward Society, which flourished in the 1920s and persisted in various forms into the early 1980s.
One of the most famous plays banned here was Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude" - but it was banned for its text, "a breeding ground for atheism and domestic infidelity," in the words of the mayor at the time, and not for any action, nude or otherwise, onstage.
"It seemed like talking about it, interestingly enough, was a better way to get banned than taking something off," Connolly said.
"Even in the heyday of 'banned in Boston,' there was a lot of striptease," he said. "Scollay Square was seen as a lost cause, but 'We've got to keep downtown pure.' It was more about preserving the image of propriety."
For many actors, too, nudity is not the most challenging form of personal exposure onstage. Jonathan Orsini, one of the actors in "Little Dog," said that nudity is only one way of showing a character's vulnerability, and that displaying emotional vulnerability often feels more revealing than simply taking off one's clothes.
Arciniegas said he expects to have the same reaction, now that he's finally doing something that "I've been in the position of asking someone else to do" as a director.
"I think I've felt more naked onstage with my clothes on," he said, "than I will in this."
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.