When I first moved to New York, I went to see The Party, a gay play that was basically a ninety-minute-or-so strip tease, where the entire (all-male) cast, for various reasons, ended up naked. Like, full frontal naked.
It was the longest, most unsatisfying foreplay I've ever experienced, and the least fun I've had (and most I've ever paid) to end up in a room of half-a-dozen naked men. Since then, my mantra has been, "If I want theater, I'll go to Broadway. If I want porn, I'll go to XTube or New York Sports Clubs. If I want gay comedy, I'll go see Brad Loekle or Adam Sank (And sometimes they're naked. Win, win!)."
But gay plays, especially light comedy? I'd rather see Lion King again... animal drag, and the character who still sounds like Nathan Lane, with Elton John music. Gay enough for me, with a nice glass of Merlot, at $200 a ticket.
The only exceptions were dramas - the staggering Love! Valour! Compassion! and Dan Butler's sexy, moving and warm one-man show, The Worst Thing You Could Have Told Me. (I missed the recent remount of Normal Heart. Bad gay!) Two Leslie Jordan shows squeaked by, too, since he's just a riot of southern storyteller, and because amidst the raucous stories, he preserves the pathos of a hard life, lived hard.
And as for the gay movie genre, Will Truman put it best: "Let me tell you a little secret we try to keep within the community: gay movies suck. But we're still obligated to go see them."
So on stage or screen, "gay comedy romps" have put me in the seat only when invited by friends or, in this case, comped as press. My mantra and mindset haven't changed much, but Gay Camp, presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, has come closest to changing my mind so far.
Written by Philip Mutz and Susan Kate-Heaney, neatly, tightly and ambitiously directed by Phillip Fazio, Gay Camp is a quick and frenetic trip through everything that floods any mildly-politically-connected gay man or woman's Facebook feed (gay conversion therapy, anti-gay politicians, the hypocrisy of homophobia) set it in a summer camp on the eve of a visit by Rick Santorum and two budding romances. It throws it all in a comedy blender, making a frothy, funny concoction of it - thanks in large part to a three-member hardworking cast that plays the small room with big, broad, physical humor, good timing, and lots of sharp or silly writing to pratfall back on.
This is a high-energy endeavor, where writers and actors are on a combined mission to either exhaust you or entertain you, whichever comes first. It's a race to the finish.
The Shakespearean tradition of men taking on all roles is in full swing here, played to the broadest comic effect. (Bearded drag is halfway to a punch line, anyway.)
Neither musical nor totally straight play, Gay Camp keeps throwing curves, using music interlude, video and audience interaction to keep the crowd guessing and off guard. In tone and spirit, Gay Camp evokes the Brady Bunch (the self-referential movies, not the series), and not just for the Cindy-esque lisping. It also plays to any movie, ever, where kids get shipped off to camp, even The Adams Family. It also has the same feel, pacing and sense of humor of the (sharper, more polished) Toxic Avenger.
Like Toxic Avenger, they also get great mileage out of the fact so few are playing so many. One brilliant little bit of staging splits one character into two actors, like the drag bipolar opposite of the big single-man duet in Jekyll and Hyde.
Gay or lesbian, out or closeted, promiscuous or virginal, top or bottom, no stereotype is left untouched (although Bears are entirely left out, for some reason, and given the setting, that seems a missed opportunity, and even the casting could benefit from at least one differing body type.). But the whole thing is presented with tongue firmly in, um, cheek, without the slightest malice, and played hard as farce and fully for laughs. No one should be offended, since, well, everyone's offended.
To a large degree, it all works. But as refreshments go, it's a big fun and sloppy blender of margaritas, not a shaker of martinis. Not that there's anything wrong with that. You get a heady buzz from both.
In spite of its political undertone and Shakespearean men-as-ladies dramatic precedent, make no mistake: this is no highbrow statement show. There's glitter fart jokes, Jolly Rancher butt plugs, deep-throated fruit, scissoring, simulated rimming and a running (runny?) gag about Santorum, the politician and the Dan Savage Google definition. (If you've not Googled it, do it now. I'll wait... right?)
It's also a play that takes the risk of occasionally involving the audience, a gamble that only pays when the audience is ready to play... but they seemed up for it, and seemed to enjoy a rollicking game of "Gay or Straight?" led by Ken Urso as Camp Headmistress wannabe-with-a-secret, June. Urso gets full credit for whipping the crowd up, and keeping the improv spirit alive.
As in any rapid-fire joke machine, there are always some blanks, but most of the jokes hit their intended target. Disclaimer: I laugh easily, and I laugh often. If I show up for comedy, I'm already chuckling in the lobby. So I guess you can say I'm easy: I laughed the entire time, sometimes with an eye roll at the easy joke (John Travolta, anyone?) sometimes full on belly... er, abs, since this is a gay play. Take that for what it's worth, and consider the source.
It's hard to talk about the comedic highlights without spoiling the biggest laugh punchlines, but let's say Bea Arthur, Joan Crawford and the Kracken were the major "I did not see that coming" moments. And the Cher lipsynch was a surprise big laugh that turned surprisingly sweet.
Cast-wise, each of the boys takes turns stealing the show, and they do it with such a blur of wig and affectation change that it takes a good fifteen minutes for it to register you're only watching three players. The audience seemed most enthralled by bad-boy slutty club kid Anton, played by the bearded Mansfield, but I loved Urso's red-headed tousle of June's big scenes (the aforementioned Gay/Straight game has a welcome, funnier, and more comedic frantic reprise). And I liked Joshua, the HGN ("Hot Gay Nerd," as once identified on Will & Grace) played by co-writer Philip Mutz.
The whole production had the "this could derail at any minute" feel of live improv, but the fast work of the cast kept the wheels mostly on the tracks. Sometimes the train slowed a bit on the curves (the off-to-a-funny-start training montage went on a tad too long, as did the big and final fight scene), but it never stopped, never crashed.
The writing seems up to the minute (a funny throw-away running reference to Newsies! and a few choice Chick-fil-A references), although the Santorum plot line will make this a period piece faster than a drag queen wields a roll of duct tape. Even so, the running Santorum gag should have gone on even longer.
Oh, and when the main two campers talk about their big Fleet Week coming out moments, the impetus of their being booted to camp, listen carefully. Funny stuff. But I wish they each had their own moment of delivery for fuller impact. Half the audience lost half of that joke.
Technically, they got a lot of mileage out of simple rolling screens and basic lighting change, but the piped in audio segments ("commercials" for Camp Acceptance, some subtle and funny, some heavy-handed and funny ("Camp Acceptance: where rainbows go to die!") needed to get bumped up to a higher volume to hold their own against the actors' energy.
The lighting shifts from stage action to video needed some tweaks (or maybe just a larger stage), and the dream sequences maybe should have been lit as such, but overall, a lot with a little. And the action, technically or otherwise, never flagged, wigs no doubt flying in the wings. Kudos, I'm sure, to stage manager Stephanie Holmes, for keeping it all untangled, and two bananas at the ready each night. Don't ask.
The big flaw, to me, is that it's just hard to satirize absurdity. Whether sweater-vest-wearing Santorum or sausage-swallowing Marcus Bachmann... they are already satire, too ridiculous for even The Onion to take a stab at. But the cast and crew of Gay Camp gave it a big gay college try. And, yes, in all the seriousness of what these things mean outside a theater, in an election year, it did feel like nice release to laugh at it - and us - all.
Where it falls or fails (and this may be more about my baggage than the playwright's or director's decisions) is when it dips to drug humor, although the audience seemed to eat up, with a spoon, the coke and meth jokes. The big tutu reveal was too cliché even for the cartoon nature of the overall play - making dad a leather Daddy would have been funnier - and the four dancing Hell's Kitchen boys, ushers in their underpants and baseball hats, dumbed the whole thing down; it cheapened the whole thing. But I wouldn't mind seeing them at New York Sports, or on XTube, some time soon.
Not to be a stick in the s'more, but the biggest question I left with was a sort of serious one - is there merit to poking fun at boycotts and gay conversion camps and closeted gays and families who ship their kids off to "get fixed"? Is now the right time? Would a straight audience even get that this is comedy (self-effacing or not) at all, even if played so broadly and so obviously for laughs? And never mind the straights - is the LGBT audience ready to laugh about it? Maybe its an age thing; is the next generation of LGBT (this is venture of twenty- and early thirty-somethings) willing to use confused kids as a punch line already - even while some are still getting carted off for a "cure"? And would the largely gay-male audience react the same way had all the roles been played by women?
Aside from all that, like "regular" summer camp, Gay Camp is a quick and happy diversion that gets you out of the city heat for a minute or two, and you'll have a pretty good time when you're there. But it's summer camp, not summer school. You won't take home any college credit for any of it, in spite of the undercurrents. Oh well. Pass the margaritas!
Gay Camp runs from August 11 through the 22nd, 2012 at the HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue, New York, as part of the The New York International Fringe Festival.