It was hard not to resist a trip to the new home of the Above the Stag theater to see the latest, dare I say it, “straight” piece by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper, the authors of the theater’s infamous gay pantos. Their Get Aladdin was the funniest panto of 2012, in part because of its cutting political pot shots. So for them to take on a play with the Stonewall Riots as its topic seemed like a natural next step.
A Hard Rain is set in a gay speakeasy (well, it’s an unlicensed bar) in Greenwich Village in the key year of 1967. Street kids (hippies and otherwise) are all over the place and drug use is common; gay people are not allowed to be served drinks legally so a place like this is their refuge. This particular bar is run by Frank (Nigel Barber), who seems to make a living off of doing things not quite allowed by the law; but with bent cops like Danny (Rhys Jennings) paid to look the other way, it’s all pretty easy to make a profit. Habitues include bartendress Angie (Stephanie Willson), homeless gay teen Jimmy (the doe-eyed James El-Sharawy), and the completely out of control Ruby (frighteningly sexy Michael Edwards), a trans Vietnam Vet who has some really crazy anger management issues. The heat is rising outside and the tempers are rising inside as the basic inequality of the treatment of gay men by the authorities becomes an issue that finally explodes.
Or does it? While this play certainly features a character who is itching to get involved in a fight, the matter of gay rights and equal treatment don’t seem to be much of an issue to Ruby. Jimmy actually seems to get more political over the course of the evening, but, while the casual discrimination that gay, bi, and trans people faced every day at this time (whether from the law, the workplace, the army, or their family) is brought up with many examples, I didn’t really feel that this was affecting the characters in a way that would lead them to riot. Ruby starts the play ready to hit anything that angers her … so getting in on any riot seems like her idea of fun.
Unfortunately, certain elements of structuring and character building – one of which is fixed for a panto and the second of which is unnecessary – seemed to be lacking in this play. The scenes were too episodic and lacked flow; the characters never became three dimensional or really evolved. Anyone of them might have made an interesting focus for a play, but none of them got it. This made me disconnected with the narrative, and I found myself struggling to stay all the way through. The bits of banter between the characters (when they were teasing each other) were certainly lively and enjoyable, but this just wasn’t enough to support the rest of the show.
My feelings aside, there’s no doubt that this play has a lot of people excited to see what they see as “their story” on stage, as the house was packed (I think it was sold out). My takeaway from this is that the Above the Stag should look at doing a “new gay plays” festival, so that all sorts of playwrights could tackle some of these topics, and give new work a chance to flourish. And I’d kind of like to see a play just about Ruby, and how you deal with being gay when you were from the South and in the army. There is a story waiting to be told.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014. A Hard Rain continues through March 30th.)