So This Gay Man Walks Into a Bookstore
Rep’s production of after all the terrible things I do is strong, but play’s edgy encounter of book store owner and writer is uneven.
Of the Milwaukee Repertory’s three operating stages at its Downtown complex, the one that has proven most audacious – and culturally healthy – is the Stiemke Studio, using the Rep’s considerable technical prowess and casting know-how to showcase new voices and unheralded dramatists.
Nothing should impede that devotion, even the failure of after all the terrible things I do, running through November 9. It is by a playwright we may hear much better things from – and even in this world premiere A. Rey Pamatmat displays an ear for dialogue and specific societal concerns that remind us that a lot of fine playwrights have baggage in their background.
The play’s parry and thrust uses candid sexual insults, contemporary jests and the complications of social interactions to unfold the plight of being “the other” in a world that bullies and demeans those who offend the dominating society. In this case it’s homosexuality, but it clearly could be religion, ethnicity and so forth.
The play takes place in a local bookstore between two very literary people. A motherly owner of a bookstore, Linda, herself disarmingly skilled in psychological probing, interviews and hires an eager young writer, Daniel, himself curiously provocative and unsettled in his personality. The plotting lives or dies on their believability, There are no customers or other bookstore employees within this strikingly designed set – with ceiling lights and nooks behind scrim created by Daniel Zimmerman. The emptiness guides us to listen hard to the frequent give and take of the two characters and the excerpts from a book Daniel is writing.
Pamatmat’s meanings sound so important that the Rep and other regional companies planning to feature this work may have been seduced by the chance to put stage center the dark soul of “safe” establishment society and its patterns of mutual cruelty, the sort of issues that mainstream outlets don’t normally delve into. Mining this neglected ground with candor about such things as the relationship of sexual violence and abuse to sexual attraction and love made these companies hope that the good intention would defuse criticism of the work’s missteps or make any criticism sound narrow of mind.
Other writers have similarly tried to reinforce the universality of dramatic themes by script-quoting established authors from Shakespeare to James Joyce, so there is precedent of sorts for Pamatmat’s extensive borrowings from a fine modern poet, the late Frank O’Hara, who has emerged as an icon of gay culture.
But theater is a demanding master whether the production is done in realistic fashion or chooses some fantastical manifestation and pointed asides. It requires clever development moment by moment, ways to engage audiences that effectively disguise coincidence and manipulation – and the skill to keep us leaning forward rather than looking for the exit.
So even if this is an intriguing and complicated subject and one worth being animated outside textbooks by the interaction of real people, the theatrical experience must provoke us in a far different way that a contemplative essay.
Exact details of what is exposed between these two characters should be kept secret in a review even if that secrecy suggests more suspense than actually occurs onstage. The quality of the set sometimes surprises us into watching. There is attractive distraction as well from the actors. Mark Junek as chameleon Daniel and Sophia Skiles as the more centered dynamo Linda are so capable that their interplay and bouts of ferocity camouflage the play’s inability to sustain three dimensions.
Their maneuvers in conversational close quarters were orchestrated by director May Adrales to jolt our wandering attention. But her choices of tableaus and physical proximity confirm how many pointed directorial signposts are being employed to handle excess convolutions in the storytelling.
The material is intentionally intellectually provocative, which may satisfy some in the audience. Others will sadly recognize the results as more pretentious than dramatic.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.