|Maurice E. Parent, with Andrew Wehling at the piano, plays the suave host of a club in Harlem. (mike lovett)|
"Some Men," Terrence McNally's collage of stories about gay men who are guests at a same-sex wedding, is sweet, slick, and light. It's the kind of harmlessly manipulative entertainment that's a staple of the cineplex. Think of it as "One Wedding and Some Funerals."
The wedding setup makes it easy for McNally to dip into scenes from one character's life after another, starting with the reminiscences of one guest, Bernie, about his earlier visit to the Waldorf-Astoria. Now he's in the ballroom to see his friends get married; a few decades ago, he was furtively upstairs in a guestroom, a man married to a woman but sneaking off for a guilt-ridden rendezvous with a male escort. How times have changed.
Well, they have, and bravo for that. And they haven't completely, and McNally is smart enough to note that, too. But whatever facet of gay life "Some Men" focuses on, as its kaleidoscope shifts from present to past and back again, the scenes click into place so neatly, so appropriately, that we see where they're going long before we're supposed to. It's like a paint-by-number portrait of Gay Men in 20th-Century American History.
That said, the local premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company, back in the black-box Roberts Studio at the Boston Center for the Arts, gives McNally's neat picture a lovely, skillfully executed frame. Eric Levenson's set opens with a prettily lacy ballroom setting, complete with a white piano and an amusingly over-encrusted chandelier; the lacelike scrims shift smoothly into new configurations to evoke a '70s bathhouse, a '30s nightclub, a '60s piano bar, or an '80s hospital, as the script requires.
With each shift, a couple or several of the nine fluent actors emerge to portray a flock of characters from different eras - each of whom, we will come to understand, has some relationship to the nine wedding guests in the opening scene. Most of the characters we will see only once, which exacerbates the sense that they're more types than people: the rich man and his chauffeur, the Internet slut, the hip gay dads, the drag queen. A few make repeat appearances (many nude, by the way), including Bernie at several stages of his increasingly open and happy life.
Director Paul Daigneault handles the tone shifts expertly, using music from show tunes to Scissor Sisters to cue each transition. He's also got some wonderful actors, and several vignettes rise above the sketch-like script to become genuinely moving. Robert Saoud and Will McGarrahan create a particularly warm sense of longtime partnership together, while Diego Arciniegas and Christopher Michael Brophy evoke a different, equally affectionate love, expressed in sniping and quips.
The two high points, however, are both musical. The first closes Act 1 with Will McGarrahan as Uncle Archie, the not-so-glam drag queen from Bethpage, Long Island. Archie finds himself in a piano bar across the street from the Stonewall Inn on the day in 1969 that marked a turning point in gay rights. But Archie isn't out there rioting; he's inside, first meeting hostility from the genteel patrons for daring to wear a dress, then knocking them (and us) dead with an a cappella rendition of "Over the Rainbow." It's completely beautiful, completely haunting, and completely powerful as an evocation of a seemingly impossible longing for a freer life - until a brilliant, instantaneous flip of the mood brings the house down.
The second highlight comes just after intermission, in another club, this time in Harlem. Maurice E. Parent plays the suave host, Angel Eyes, who says a famous songwriter used to come uptown to see him and, one day, wrote a song for him. He sings, in a gorgeously elegiac voice so full of wisdom and heartbreak that it can only come out in song, "Ten Cents a Dance." Then Angel Eyes tells us he asked his friend why, if it was about him, "some broad was singing it." He pauses. "And we both had a good laugh."
That one wry line - and Parent's expert pause - holds more history, and more hard-won truth, than just about anything else in "Some Men."
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.