Banal Zone

An esteemed acting teacher named Richard Pinter, himself a student of the great coach Sanford Meisner, once succinctly explained to his students (including me) the difference between real life and life as properly written and acted for the stage. "If we wanted belly-scratching reality in drama," he began, "we'd take a video camera and follow you from the time you awakened to the time you went to sleep. We'd see you wash your face, brush your teeth, go to work, cook dinner, and so on. Then we'd all go to the cinemas next week and see Roberta's Day. And everyone would fall asleep."

He continued without a hint of levity: "In the theater we portray what is known as 'heightened reality,' the times when life seems filled with drama and significance."Shakespeare, Pinter pointed out, never wasted a moment on dialogue such as "Hi, how are you?" or similar banalities. Instead characters launched directly into the action. For example, Hamlet begins with the guards discussing the appearance of the dead king's ghost. Less than ten lines into the play, Francisco says that he is "sick at heart," immediately hinting toward something of impact and import.

If I were to choose the worst aspect of Jerry Radloff's new play, Venice, currently on view at the Public Theatre Studio, it would be the work's very essence: nothing more than two hours of belly-scratching reality, without a hint of dramatic action. In fact, I almost hesitate to criticize any of the cast members, sadly saddled with the leaden yoke of Mr. Radloff's script and his misguided direction of his own piece. Under these circumstances, not even Olivier could shine.

Having heartily enjoyed Radloff's writing and directing skills in his wonderful comedy Roommate Wanted -which first introduces us to the lead character in Venice, making the new plot a sequel of sorts -- I'm stumped as to how the Public's playwright-in-residence could have made such an obvious blunder. The piece is self-indulgent, whiny, positively amateurish. Whereas Roommate immediately set up a dramatic situation (a gay man uncomfortably shares an apartment with two super-hetero jocks), here the premise begins and ends with a disconnected young yuppie named Greg, who swears off any kind of intimate relationship and is subsequently besieged by some sexually appetizing offers, first from his hunky ex-lover George, then from an attractive new neighbor named Paul. The entire play consists of George complaining to the audience and his friend Kathy about love and lust -- how they damage the soul, how a person needs them, how can you live with or without them. Need I continue?

The fact that the play deals with gay male issues and shows gay men kissing and baring their bottoms is its finest attribute. Why should romance and sexuality be portrayed on stage as relentlessly heterosexual? Of course, both gay and straight works of art should speak to universal truths that apply regardless of an audience's sexual orientation (not to mention race, color, or creed), but Radloff's play strays so far from art that I can hardly fault it for not succeeding on the finer points. That Radloff wishes to guide the piece in a gay direction doesn't diminish it; the banal dialogue ("I must lock it all inside," Greg laments) and static plot completely wither the work.

I wish I could offer a better profile of the evening, but there remains little to say. Greg meets Paul, they make love, Greg rejects Paul, George talks sense into Greg, Kathy comes on to everyone, George brings a young male "escort" named Teddy to a birthday party, Greg decides to go to Venice with Paul. A nonstarter plot such as this might work when the lines are witty, the jokes quick, and the playwright's observations on human nature acute. Alas, none of these elements flows through Venice.

The one truly annoying element of Radloff's script and direction lies in his portrayal of Kathy, the lone woman in the script. She's dumb, crass, overly aggressive, loud, vulgar, and dresses as though taste were some concept from another planet. Kathy makes the men, including escorts George and Teddy -- who are hooking happily and without conscience in the age of AIDS -- look good. I hope this is not what Radloff intended, since a subtly bigoted portrayal of any group of people is unacceptable.

Alan Saban as Greg and Beau Bender as George underact and settle into one lethargic note, but Marc Cameron builds an appealing Paul although he is physically miscast; characters constantly refer to him as though he were the most gorgeous man in the universe. Although he's attractive, Cameron's looks won't threaten the careers of Richard Gere or Mel Gibson. James Ackley in the small role of Teddy doesn't appear to know what he's doing on stage, but I'd prefer not to judge him from this work. For Norma Forgue's sake, I hope her errors in the pivotal role of Kathy arise from the direction. She prances around on tiptoes like a cross between a drunk hobbit and a Mouseketeer, and while her acting sometimes clicks it more often ranges from slightly mannered to painfully forced. Someone should also note that her skimpy little dress in Act Two doesn't fit properly, and pulling a tight hemline over your backside does not qualify as a suitable stage activity in the craft of acting.

Radloff can do much better. For the previous play he blended comedy and tragedy, gay-specific issues and universal themes, and constructed characters of important dramatic weight. He never failed to provide action. This time he has tossed aside the art of writing and direction. He should toss this particular play into a deep drawer and work on something new.


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