Terrence McNally’s reputation as a bankable out gay playwright and adaptor precedes him, so it’s not surprising that this spring alone, he has two plays running in New York: Some Men, the Off Broadway trifle recently produced at Second Stage, and Deuce, starring Angela Lansbury and Marion Seldes as two aging tennis rivals, opening on Broadway in May. McNally’s brand of liberal gay storytelling and conventional, comfortable dramaturgy makes him a natural for popular audiences; no doubt Some Men will become a staple on the regional theatre circuit.

Or maybe not. Because despite its rather pat resolutions and rather unsurprising turns of plot and character, Some Men does address the history of gay men over the last fifty or so years, and tries to put in perspective the seismic shifts in their politics and their emotional and sexual practices. With a company of seven men—one or two slightly older, the others mostly 30 somethings, all white except for one African American man and one or two perhaps Latinos—McNally creates a generationally and genealogically overlapping crowd whose adventures tell an episodic story of the highs and lows of American gay men’s recent past and present.

The stage is first set—quite beautifully, in fact, by set designer Mark Wendland—at the Waldorf Astoria, where in the opening scene a disparate group of men forms to attend a wedding. One is a couple fighting about who remembered or forgot the wedding gift; another is a father attending alone; another is a young man in uniform; another is a rather disheveled young punk; and another is playwright/actor David Greenspan, camping (already and always) through the scene. The stage is decorated almost completely in white, and graced with one wall of mirrored tiles, huge heavy chandeliers, and a baby grand that give the proceedings a sense of both gravitas and wealth. White wooden chairs face out to the audience; throughout the play, director Trip Cullman uses vaguely Brechtian devices to position the audience as a participant in the history the play unravels.

From here, the play leaps backwards and then forwards again in time, offering a non-chronological travelogue of key moments in the recent gay male past. The scene at the Waldorf bumps back to the late 60s or early 70s, when Mayor Lindsay regularly sent vice squads to entrap gay men staging assignations at hotels, and finds a married man arranging a tryst with a hustler whose day job is being an English major at Columbia. The hustler reassures the anxious married man, instructing him to take off his shirt and the rest of his clothing, acting more like a nurse than an erotic companion.

(The night I saw the production [March 30, 2007], the Second Stage audience seemed to tense, just a bit, wondering how far this strip would go, and seemed to feel palpable relief when it ended before the men were fully, frontally nude. As a subscription-based theatre, many of its spectators are white, middle- or upper-middle class, and heterosexual. Many of them are dressed up, as though this is a night on the town that differs from their regular routines. For Some Men, at least a third of the audience was white gay men.)

The military man approaches the older man at what’s turned into his son’s funeral, and subtly helps the mourning man understand that his son was loved, even if his lover was a man. A stockbroker maintains an affair with his Irish chauffeur, blithely unaware of how his class privilege and power plays out in their East Hampton relationship. Men face computers (and the audience) and flirt with each other in chat rooms, making up fantasy identities and exaggerating their physical (and sexual) attributes. An encounter group trades pop psychology aphorisms and affirmations, skimming the surface of complex emotions.

Some of these scenes are bogged down with dogmatic, didactic writing, in which McNally tells rather than shows the politically correct and incorrect consequences of his characters’ actions. A moral judgment underlies each scene, which too easily categories the characters as “heroes” or “villains,” as prescient or deluded. Some men in the early years want to be out and proud; others suggest that “’gay is good’ is crap; gay sucks,” and insist on staying in their marriages and remaining closeted. Patrons at a piano bar circa 1969 ostracize a drag queen who arrives looking for companionship, refusing to serve men who won’t abide by gender-appropriate rules of dress and comportment.

As they congratulate themselves on their conservative complacency, sounds of a riot can be heard from a bar across the way that’s clearly the Stonewall Inn, since this is the night of Judy Garland’s death. One of the more radical men leaves his friends to join the riot, while the straight-acting gay men agree that laws are fucked up but find activism too “strident.” They remain by their piano, singing wistfully to “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” in a moment that at once points out the apathy and sadness of preppy gay men pre-Stonewall, but at the same time reminds us that gay history wasn’t written only by those who rebelled. McNally’s portrait underlines how history happens in ways that affect us whether or not we participate in its making. As they hum along to Garland’s signature song, one of the two show queens asks the other, “Would you marry me if you could?” establishing what seems then like an impossible wish as a way to measure current progress.

For, at the end of Some Men, the wedding does indeed take place, the once-unthinkable joining in matrimony that’s now, in some places in the US and abroad, legal for gay men and lesbians. “Will you marry me?” is answered with an emphatic “I do,” as if there were any doubt that this might be the right answer, regardless of which men form the couple. Even though McNally has fun presenting scenes in the notorious gay baths—where the older men want to see the performers and the younger men only want to have sex—and, for the more contemporary “some men,” in anonymous chat rooms that promise potential live assignations, like any many conventional “tramedies,” the play moves inexorably toward marriage as its final, most meaningful, right, true act of faith. Those years of raided bars and sex in bathhouses, McNally suggests, are safely in the past, now that gay men can assimilate into these hallowed heterosexual practices.

Perhaps to McNally’s credit, it’s the young gay men in Some Men who rush to marry, not the older ones, who seem content with their relationships in the outlaw form they’ve always taken (and in most places still take). When two “gender studies” majors from Vassar arrange to interview “older” gay men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, McNally uses the occasion to insist that gay men were happy before Stonewall, even if they weren’t “out and proud” and weren’t able to marry or commit in public civil unions. His genealogy is in some ways nostalgic for a moment before conventionality set in, although his memories of the baths are about finding partners with whom to couple, rather than a more licentious, happily promiscuous and anonymous expression of sexual practice.

The one black man in the cast plays a variety of characters, from a show queen in a long-term committed couple to the therapist in a group encounter scene that’s rife with pat “truth or dare” situations and moments of uninspired twenty or more questions. But his salient tokenism here begs at least a casting question. None of the characters are specifically raced one way or another. Why not cast more people of color, so that Some Men won’t look so inexorably white? Why not write more characters of color, so that when the play is picked up by the regionals, they’ll be encouraged to cast a more multiracial group of actors? Why not use the highly public forum that a popular playwright like McNally commands to make a point about diversity in the gay male population, even if these characters are more moneyed and privileged than most (and in that way conform to the most insistent stereotype of gay men, which is their command of huge amounts of disposable income, which is true really of only some men)?

Likewise, no women characters flesh out this community. Why aren’t gay men ever accused of separatism, when so many of their rituals and places of entertainment and their theatre and performance are in fact sex-segregated? Women rarely get even a mention in Some Men and none live on stage. Again, it’s McNally’s choice to create whatever his imagination (and conscience) dictates. But what kind of gay male world is represented when no women at all even orbit around their planet?

Era-appropriate music introduces and plays under each scene, from “Crimson and Clover” to other touchstone melodies for people of a certain age. In fact, Some Men aims its wistfulness squarely at an older generation of gay men, which is meant to shake its collective heads at the foibles of the young queers who flaunt their radicality as they don their wedding rings. His project means to gently remind us of recent history, while we ride blithely into a sanctioned future with empty soup cans and streamers flying from the backs of our (family) cars. His wants to be wry and rueful about how history has changed the social position of gay men, but Some Men isn’t sure whether to celebrate this assimilation or to be nostalgic for days rife with the excitement, mystery, and even the danger of their underground status.

Finally, McNally brings us full circle, back to the wedding scene that writes these particular middle- to upper-middle class into a traditional family scenario (in the second East Hampton beach scene, two couples even bring their new babies along and trade stories about formula and feedings). Some Men wants to teach queer youngsters something about the old days, but ultimately, in his affectionate, slight portrait, the old days don’t look much different from the new.

A woman among some men,
The Feminist Spectator

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5 Responses to Terrence McNally’s Some Men at Second Stage in NYC

  1. Anonymous 2 aka dakini13 says:

    Time for confession: my response is limited by the simple fact that I have not seen the play. So please excuse any unintended trivializing of the content. Whatever else, your review triggered these thoughts, and a desire to communicate with you, the author, the feminist spectator.

    “As a subscription-based theatre, … many of them are dressed up, as though this is a night on the town that differs from their regular routines.”

    “As though…” Do I hear a gentle pejorative tone? I think so. Don’t mean to get too personal, but do you never dress up yourself when anticipating a challenging but enjoyable night out? Budgets. $$. Bums on seats. Lack of government support for the arts etc etc.

    “… subtly helps the mourning man understand that his son was loved, even if his lover was a man.”

    In this case does the text function as an opportunity to remind the audience, and the father, of the son’s sacrifice for his lifestyle choice? Perhaps it was a little heavy-handed. Still, mourning should never be a solitary affair.

    “… but at the same time reminds us that gay history wasn’t written only by those who rebelled.”

    I like this line. Why? Not sure at first reading. Just like it. Respect for diversity! Then you spell it out for those of us who did not see the play (exactly what a review should do…). And for those of us who have always seen marriage as a gesture of ownership, perpetuated by the State, but have attempted to encompass its larger dimension of optimism. For the sake of our younger friends at least who were not around when it clearly entrapped so many.

    “while we ride blithely into a sanctioned future with empty soup cans and streamers flying from the backs of our (family) cars”

    Andy Warhol eat your heart out. I have no idea whether the play took this image to the place my imagination took it in your one brief line… contextualized within soundtrack (Shondells, Joan Jett- excellent). I even had Marilyn’s beautiful face bumping along behind the car. On a more serious note, I sense your concern that underground status may only confer isolation, not change.

    And, with genuine empathy, I acknowledge your concerns about the casting. Fortunately there are more plays today that employ people of (other) colour ( though religious diversity is till ignored (please correct me if I’m wrong)), and a few plays that employ more ‘actresses’. I recently saw a new Australian play called Parramatta Girls. All female cast. Including a number of famous Indigenous Australians. It may never reach the USA. And perhaps it doesn’t need to. Who am I to say?

    Now… will I re-read this before I post it? Not used to the semi-public component of the net, yet.

    Love the way you write.

    Anonymous 2 aka Dakini13

  2. Anonymous says:

    One question:

    In your review (and, possibly, in the play) AIDS doesn’t exist except as a past event. Is this a bug, or a feature?

  3. Jill Dolan says:

    Just quickly, to the second comment-er: interesting, no AIDS doesn’t exist in the play except as a past event. It’s no doubt what my friend and colleague David Roman would call a “post-AIDS” play, which raises all sorts of ethical issues. In some ways, HIV/AIDS hovered around the text, especially in the pre-HIV scenes in the bathhouse. The audience, obviously, knows what happens, so the scene is haunted by the specter of the future even as we watch it unfold in the theatrical past. But I don’t recall any of the scenes directly addressing the virus, or anyone’s mortality at its hands.

    What might this mean for queer theatre? For representations of gay men? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

    Best, jd

  4. Jill Dolan says:

    To Anonymous 2 aka dakini13:

    Thanks for your long post. To reply:

    As for the dressing up, you’re right, it sounds pejorative, and I didn’t really mean it to be. I think I wanted to underline that many of the people in the audience seemed to be there as “consumers,” as people for whom dinner and theatre equal a night on the town, in which theatre is something that’s consumed in much the same way as the dinner. But even that qualification sounds condescending, which I don’t mean it to be. One of the reasons that audiences fascinate me (and many of us) is that it’s impossible really to know them–why they’re there, what they think, who they are. So I/we look at eternals like how they’re dressed, as though that tells us something. And it does, but WHAT it tells us is pretty much anything. I don’t tend to dress up for the theatre, because I want to be comfortable, because I want it to be part of my daily routine, rather than something set apart. But I do think it’s “special,” and for some people, that requires a costume.

    Re mourning: I agree with you. The moment was actually rather moving, in its oblique way. McNally’s writing IS in many ways heavy-handed, in that he “tells” so much. But it also clarifies emotion in a rather direct way that’s sometimes refreshing.

    Re marriage and the soup can image: I do think one of the most interesting things about SOME MEN was the way it positioned some of the older male characters as more “radical” than the younger ones, in terms of a dissenting view on gay marriage, for instance. That critique of marriage, launched by feminists in the 70s, especially, has been shouted down by a rush to the altar by contemporary gay activists. I appreciated McNally’s gesture of inclusion for those of us who are ambivalent about marriage being the scene of our “acceptance” by the mainstream.

    Thanks for your post.

    My best, jd

  5. Treavor says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m happy I got to see Some Men while in NYC last month; I enjoyed watching the play, but kept thinking it was every insular–maybe even inaccessible to those who don’t identify as gay??? Not sure. At times when watching the play I felt that the gay community (as it was represented in this show) is too closed in on itself. Even though some gay men work to replicate heterosexual conventions, I still think that a a gay/striaght binary is reproduced . I don’t see that as being all that productive, since ultimately such binaries can divide and exclude and totalize people. I just think that we should work on finding our similarities, not our differences; McNally’s play does a little of both, maybe, but ultimately just seemed so insular. Anyway, in light of your post, I wanted to write my response. It got too unwieldy for this forum, so I decided post them in my blog.

    http://wearyquery.wordpress.com/

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