Gender Bender

One of the major brain twisters of the current decade has got to be sexuality: should you do it, with whom, and which sex. Whereas in the past sexual peccadilloes and debates largely remained confined to straightforward scandals A pre- or extramarital dalliances A in the Nineties the carnal issue has taken on life-and-death significance, combined with an urgency to openly explore the ins and outs of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality. What's next? Perhaps bestiality and necrophilia. While this could be a result of too much Oprah- and Sally Jessy-watching, there's also a cerebral component. To a generation bred on information-gathering, sex simply as sex doesn't yield enough data to ruminate on. So we must dissect every aspect of coitus, especially when so many members of society are too frightened to do it any more.

One can hardly find a television news show not devoted at least in some part to the question of gays entering the military, and lately it seems that more and more artists are trying to bring the sexual-preference question into the mainstream. Certainly, there have been gay plays and gay movies for quite some time, but these were geared toward a select group. No better example of the new trend exists than the unexpectedly hyperbolic success of the pleasant (though hardly great) The Crying Game.

Although I normally avoid comparing apples and oranges, it's impossible not to mention The Crying Game when reviewing the Public Theatre's world premiäre production of former artist-in-residence Jerry M. Radloff's play, Roommate Wanted. Theatre spokesmen told me Radloff wrote this farce several years ago and shelved it. No wonder he dusted it off and decided to air it now. The timing couldn't be better.

Granted, the play falters because of its many improbabilities, contrivances, and cliches. But what sex farce doesn't? The amusing aspect to Radloff's work is that the confusions, secret trysts, and duplicities of the farcical form have been updated. Instead of the issue being adultery, it's bisexuality.

The plot contains all the right elements for comic fluff, with the added homophobe-vs.-homosexual twist. Two jocks at a Missouri college lose their third hard-drinking roommate and search for a replacement. The distinctly more macho of the duo, Hal (a football player, naturally), rejects almost everyone on the suspicion that they might be gay, especially if they play a musical instruments. In a rare show of independence, the wimpier one, Brian, rents the empty room to Andy, who openly tells Brian in their first meeting that he is gay. Upon learning the truth (after much double entendre), Hal turns into a bitter bully, his girlfriend Tess sides with Brian and Andy, and everyone tries to explore whether they are attracted to someone else, gender be damned.

Several elements of Radloff's script strain credibility; for instance, why doesn't Hal just pack his bags and move out if he's so upset? Why, come to think of it, did Brian suddenly do such an outrageous thing? And why would Andy choose to live in the thick of such vitriol? Other points border on offensive cliche. Hal the homophobe ends up seducing Andy's boyfriend Trace, for no other reason than the author buying into the obnoxious myth that straight men disgusted by homosexuality must be homosexuals. This particular contrivance is sophomoric by now. Some homophobes may be in the closet, but others are not. Anyone who believes that beneath every megastraight person lurks an alter ego dying to be gay belongs back in Freud's dark age. (The Crying Game, incidentally, deals with the same issue much more realistically, in that the straight man, while willing to love and care for another male, cannot consummate a relationship that just doesn't turn him on.)

Having quibbled, I must quickly add that the play did entertain me with plenty of wise observations. At certain moments, Andy becomes just as macho and stubborn as Hal, proving you don't have to be straight to be a testosteronic blockhead. Tess complains about the boredom of going to jock parties; Trace hates the banal propensity at gay parties to discuss kinky sexual acts. Tess and Trace, intelligent people obviously turned on by aloof, dominant partners, both find themselves attracted to Hal and Andy. And Brian represents a type of heterosexual seldom portrayed in drama A not the macho bully, but the fey man who nevertheless is strictly ladies-only.

Radloff's direction keeps the action moving and successfully digs out a tidy bit of humor. For the most part, he also has a stellar cast to guide. Mikal Nilsen does a superb job as Andy, simmering someplace between angry young man, bitchy queen, and strong male friend. His role is without a doubt the most complex, and his mastery in creating a real man instead of a stereotype deserves healthy applause. Brooke Becker as Tess and Alan Saban as Trace avoid pat characterizations as well, bringing to life complex people worthy of love. The only forced members of the company are Alex Benjamin as Brian and Robert Hooker as Hal, who stamp around the stage and mug too much. Still, the way Radloff wrote this tale, the two original roommates end up as supporting characters, so you can overlook their slightly amateurish mannerisms.

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