I've mentioned it before: even though I've reviewed a few, I'm not necessarily the biggest proponent or auto-pilot endorser of "gay plays." Unless you're talking "Normal Heart" levels of excellence, they're usually not enough "drama" and too much "queen." They frequently fall short, and when they do, to me it's then like watching a friend or family member fail. It's personal. I'm expecting to see me up there, and when I don't like what I see, it's cause for some seat-squirming.
But as gay plays go, there's valid substance, intriguing questions and successful moments in Marcus Yi's "The Procedure."
At the core of this earnest little play: the idea of having to choose between the people you love and the place you use to define your being, with a little gay frosting on the cake.
Protagonist Adrian is a thirty-something Singapore native (played by twenty-something Stephen Thornton), living in the US and married to his partner, Jacob (Reynaldo Rivera). It's set in the vaguely distant future, when the US government allows same-sex marriage, but so further ahead (in time, not thinking) that it also requires all non-native partners entering into marriage to receive an identifying microchip implant, right in the eye.
In this vision of the future of marriage equality, we've taken one step forward, yet with regards to immigration reform as it applies to same sex couples, the future is still a little behind the times. Or, perhaps more accurately, exactly where we're stuck now: where immigration reform falls short of securing protections for same-sex, bi-national couples.
At its very heart, The Procedure asks if finding your place has to mean abandonment of roots, and the resignation that comes from assimilation. Here, the lead characters might have been gay, but the main issues of fitting in were far more universal. In that universal, the moments that most fully succeeded, and the play's most moving truth: When you don't know where you fit, life's a lonely road, even with a partner at your side.
Fitting in: It's a subject frequently at the root of LGBT alienation. Where do we fit in among the straight world? Do further rights ensure our fit, or just fan the flames?
And if we want to stay separate, where do we find our sense of community, within a community that works just as hard to segment (Bears, otters, twinks, trans, butch, femme, gay, queer...) as it does to embrace and align? And does "marriage" just now create another check box in the column of criteria by which we define or separate ourselves, in either real life or on an OkCupid profile? Not a bad litany of questions surfacing from such a spare 75-minute piece, that at times tries to brush itself off as comedy.
Some of the most provocative layers came not from the gay moments, but from the blurred lines of Asian identity (interestingly played out with initially banal seeming discussions of, about, and over food, and lines like "What flavor of Asian are you?"), and the broad-and-getting-broader definition of "American."
Every main character of the four (in this cast of six, rounded out by Lauren Gralton and Richard Glucksberg) is fairly fully realized, which made the supporting characters, when played for laughs, far more hollow and perplexing than had the whole thing been an all-out comedic romp.
But through Yi's writing, no one is either true hero or villain. Even within a mother's support comes the request that her son play straight around other relatives. And even in the son's noble thinking, he's not above taking a bribe to do so, in an interesting exchange that speaks to both Eastern and Western concepts of money, capitalism, culture and pride, and the give and take of any relationship.
The most solid scenes were between Adrian and the two Singapore women (one, his mother, played engagingly and authentically by Fenny Noyvane), the other, a female friend (played with equal authenticity by Shubhra Prakash) where dialogue was at its most conversational, the comedy at its most organic.
I'd love to see some more chemistry-establishing scenes before stress takes over the relationship of Adrian and Jacob. And as Jacob goes, he needs a little more ink on the page to make us feel more deeply about his side of the story.
It's interesting to note we only ever meet one male of any "Asian flavor." What would another Asian male viewpoint, gay or straight, have added to the cultural exchange? Say, perhaps, if the doctor had been Korean (and/or outright homophobic), as another way to add to the layering Yi seems to be working.
There are some moments where gay cliché seems ready to rear its bedazzled, be-dragged and BDSM-ed head, but interesting writing usually saves the day. When Adrian reveals he was first outed while wearing his mother's dresses, I was ready for full eye roll... yet the reaction he describes was poignant and telling, especially since we had met his slightly-crass, no-nonsense mother just minutes prior. The revelation made her and their relationship more nuanced. Still, I hope some day we get past "I wore dresses as a kid" as dramatic shorthand for early gay discovery, especially since that says more about gender expression than about sexual identity.
The play was peppered with some curious choices, though. And some heavy doses, at that.
The two biggest missteps were the scenes played most broadly (with a capital BROAD), starting with the immigration meeting. In real life, the questions of that process, and their malicious intent of separation, not union, create enough drama and absurdity without having to add an over-the-top temptress to the mix.
The questions themselves are so blatantly confrontational their delivery needn't be, and would have been more chilling with more straightforward presentation. The scene was redeemed somewhat when the couple was divided. The answers were the most revealing about the true nature of what being a couple actually means, and the scene's structure made for interesting pacing and points of comparison.
The medical office scene was an even bigger mystery, played for such high camp that it sent a palpable wave of fidgeting through the Monday afternoon audience. I could easily see that a straightforward medical description of the procedure (the implantation of a tracking/identification chip in the recipient's eye) could have made a more searing point about the protagonist's choice at hand.
The scene was so over the top it made the odd hallucination sequence that followed almost welcome dramatic relief. It was also a scene were making a character gay added nothing to the mix or momentum.
As for dramatic devices, there are moments of to-the-audience monologue, which seemed to want one or two more instances to seem fully realized. The doctor, straight faced and straight-laced, detailing the procedure, could have been one, and one other might have fleshed out Jacob a bit more.
Did this play need to be set in the future? Actually, the questions asked could have carried as much weight were it set right now, in Jan Brewer's Arizona, or Marco Rubio's Florida, where battles of immigration and basic LGBT protections (of housing, of employment) are fully enflamed and borderline farcical right now.
But the big question: Do you even need the pretense of "the procedure" to make the case?
In some ways, I see the point. If, in addition to having to recite the strikingly archaic pledge for citizenship (perhaps the most chilling words of the whole piece) to ensure your place, how many would also risk a physical medical procedure, and in effect, be tagged like a pet dog to do it? Especially with a device that had grander, or perhaps more sinister intent behind it.
A running gag, commercials for the "Freedom Chip," hinted at the ulterior motives, but might also have had a more effective and creepier vibe had they been played straight. They ended up being far more Futurama than 1984.
Maybe these comedic interludes could have worked better if the rest of the play had been played straighter. There's enough absurdity to the real issues of immigration and same-sex marriage equality that the intentionally comedic parts just seem redundant, and partially trivialize the protagonist's choice.
I won't spoil the ending by revealing whether Adrian gets chipped or not, but that also seems a route that might have benefited the whole: Would the questions posed throughout the piece been more provocative had we never know which route he ultimately chose? I think perhaps yes, although the final scene allows for a striking combination of elements, spoken and visual.
Would the message have been stronger had we left wondering? He does ultimately make the choice, but it's not entirely clear why, and that yields more a "So what?" when a more intriguing "What if" could have been the parting shot.
There's good content here, valid questions, and interesting overlap of things both LGBT-specific and humanly universal. A tighter circle, pulling more fully to reality and drama, will only serve to strengthen it.
There's enough material and saving grace here to take another shot at polishing both the play and production. Ironically, a straighter presentation might greatly benefit this particular gay play.
Marcus Yi's "The Procedure", directed by Sonia Nam and Marcus Yi, is presented as part of Planet Connections Theatre Festivity at The Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, Manhattan. Stage Manager: Brendan Carmody; Production Assistant, Taras Chopenko.