In life -- and especially in the arts -- people are fond of excusing failure by blaming it on societal prejudice. "If only I wasn't a woman," (or black, or short) "then I would have made it." While many instances of such bigotry can be cited, there's another harsh but pragmatic truth: The greatest talents often succeed, no matter what they are. When Streisand opened her mouth to sing at 15, it mattered not a bit that she was a dumpy girl with a huge nose. Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in spite of being a black female. And Danny DeVito did damn good for us short people.
Which brings me to Harvey Fierstein, who, as Vince Rhomberg of the Public Theater pointed out the other night, "through amazing force brought homosexual subculture to the American mainstream theater." Indeed he did. From the substantial fame and respect he gained through the ground-breaking Torch Song Trilogy to the plays he wrote about the effects of AIDS in the latter 1980's -- such as Safe Sex andOn Tidy Endings, two one acts presented in the best light imaginable by The Public Theatre Studio -- Fierstein made the top grade not because or in spite of his homosexual themes and persona, but due to his outstanding writing, his ability to seamlessly blend the comic with the poignant.
Of the two pieces, On Tidy Endings blatantly exposes the depth of Fierstein's genius. Set after a bisexual man's death from AIDS, in the apartment where the ex-wife and male lover must split up both the possessions and the grief, the playwright turns away from any cliches and takes the audience on an emotional adventure, so true and universal, no viewer, gay or straight, can fail to be moved. In fact, one monologue delivered by Arthur, the lover, describing the day of his dear Colin's death, hit such a home run with me, I left the theater with moist eyes. My father, who recently died, valiantly battled The Reaper and finally let go in the same exact way Fierstein describes. This is the goal of great writing: to express an event with words capable of reaching into anyone's memories.
Compared to On Tidy Endings, Safe Sex comes off as just a witty ditty about a gay relationship now floundering in the specter of AIDS. But that doesn't mean the same cutting quips and home truths don't make the piece thoroughly enjoyable. In describing his lover's lack of hygiene, Ghee snaps, "I saw dogs fall in love with grass where you walked barefoot." To which the wounded blue collar worker Mead replies, "You've just got a headache against intimacy."
Fierstein would be proud of these two productions, smartly staged and guided by director Richard Marlow. Although two of the main actors in the pieces -- David Bugher as Mead and Corrina Lee as the ex-wife -- exhibit reality but not nearly enough energy, the shows belong to Mikal Nilsen, whose frightened, fragile bitchy Ghee becomes lovable in spite of himself, and whose Arthur is simply a triumph, no other word for it. Nilsen endows Arthur with so much real grief, bitterness and emptiness, this time the actor raised goose bumps on my flesh. His total immersion into Fierstein's dramatic vision won't soon be forgotten.
The Public's new makeshift space in one of Fort Lauderdale's branch libraries leaves much to be desired (although Rhomberg assured the audience that a proper theater would be built soon) and neither sets, lights nor costumes are substantial enough to even gain a mention. But those facts once again prove that glitz and cash don't make great theater -- quality actors, writers and directors do. And prejudice rarely determines whether an artist succeeds or not. More often, it's a question of good luck wedded to astonishing talent. As a society, we're becoming so used to mediocrity that the Madonnas and Tom Arnolds of the world have us snowed. It takes the awesome gifts of a man like Harvey Fierstein to remind us what an "artist" is.
One of my new year's resolutions was to finally take a load off my chest and discuss theater etiquette on this page, hoping to persuade offending audience members (and others) to turn over a new, classier leaf in 1993.
Although movie and dramatic theaters across the country complain of noisier and noisier audiences, here in South Florida we absolutely excel in the form. Either it's two deaf people arguing about the parking space, one non-English speaker with a companion who translates every word, or just young kids with too much energy and no discipline. Whatever the reason, SHUT UP DURING THE PLAY. The willing suspension of disbelief breaks instantly when I have to hear someone behind me complain about their conjunctivitis; somehow, I just can't get into the reality of the theater when I feel like I'm sitting in Grand Central Station at rush hour. And candy wrappers sound even worse, especially when the person unwrapping them has arthritis and so takes a half hour before he stops crackling away. Unwrap them before the show. Remember how dry that medication makes your mouth midway through and please plan ahead.