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.
For those of you who know I'm a critic or guess easily, due to my pad and pencil, please stop emphasizing compliments about the actors while the show is ongoing. No matter how brilliant you say your boyfriend is (and I happen to overhear your shouting voice), I'll still say he sucks if he does. Your "offhand" comments to your friends simply prevent me from hearing what he says.
When a show starts at 8:00 p.m, that doesn't mean you should first leave your home at 8:00 p.m. While the company may hold the curtain for a few minutes, they don't wait for an hour. People have this incredibly stupid habit of arriving 45 minutes late and then bustling through the rows to an empty front seat. Sometimes I wonder why the actors don't just reach over and punch them out.
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Finally, two personal notes which I hope will make the proper point both to the specific and the universal. If you're an actor, and I give you a bad review, write to New Times. Do not -- as Fermin Rojas of the ill-fated Ms. Smith Goes to Washington -- did, call me at home, and demand I print a retraction. "I'm not an over-actor," he yelled. When I asked why he called me at my private number rather than my work number (being that I did not call him at home after the show and describe how horrific I thought he was) he said he preferred the "Bette Davis" approach. Fermin, Bette's dead.
The last reproach belongs to Jeanine Goodstein of the Minorca Playhouse, who earlier in the year, talked up as loud storm through her own theater's presentation of Dangerous Liaisons. And she was sitting behind me. When I asked her to pay some greater respect to the actors, she turned ugly. Please learn about theater etiquette before you run one.
For those who believe I'll praise anything avant-garde, guess again. I like the original and excellent. Therefore, although Brazilian monologuist Denise Stoklos impressed me greatly with her odd, comic, and symbolic body/voice contortion in her performance piece Casa -- presented last week at the Colony Theater and sponsored by the Miami Light Project -- I missed the point. Perhaps part of the problem lies in one of Stoklos' "credits" -- that she writes and performs her plays in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. In English (quite starkly not her first language), her diction becomes impenetrable and many of her points pedestrian. Maybe it worked better in German or Portuguese.
Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings by Harvey Fierstein, directed by Richard Marlow; with Mikal Nilsen, David Bugher, Corrina Lee, and Nikolaus Ippolito. At The Public Theatre Studio, Fort Lauderdale Branch Library, NE 14th Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, through February 14. Performances Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $8-$10. Call 568-2243.