David Blue couldn’t be more excited about producing the Canadian premiere of Some Men, the latest play by celebrated American playwright Terrence McNally.
“Originally, we were looking at producing another Terrence McNally play this fall, Love! Valour! Compassion!,” admits the artistic director of Raving Theatre, Vancouver’s gay and lesbian theatre company. But when Some Men came up, Blue “jumped at the chance” to stage it.
Blue acknowledged he hadn’t read, or seen, Some Men prior to acquiring the performance rights. “I had only read reviews of it and had friends who had seen it and quite, quite enjoyed it. They thought it would be a perfect play for us to do at some point.”
Apart from Love! Valour! Compassion!, McNally is better known for such plays as The Ritz, Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune, Master Class, and the Tony-Award winning books for the hit musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime and The Full Monty.
“Given the choice of doing a play that I absolutely love but is 20-some-odd years old and has been performed several times in Vancouver, or a brand new Terrance MacNally that’s never been performed here, let alone anywhere in Canada, I thought, ‘Okay, let’s go with that.'”
A small crowd was on hand at Granville Island’s Performance Works to take in the play’s Nov 22 debut. However, opening night did not live up to Blue’s enthusiasm.
As it turns out Some Men is a difficult play. Not difficult from a conceptual point of view but from the perspective of theatre-goers who may have difficulty following the action that centres in and around New York City.
The some men of the title are a wide collection of characters portrayed by nine actors. They are not historic figures, nor are they larger than life.
Unfortunately, all the audience sees is some men, too.
We really don’t get to know much about who they are, where they are coming from, or where they are going. The playwright does not give us enough background to know or empathize with them.
The gay men depicted in different scenarios spanning the past 90 years interact in a complex series of vignettes which are not really substantial or linear enough to be properly called scenes. They serve more as a collection of archetypes or less kindly, stereotypes. To add to our emotional distance, each actor plays a number of different roles, so we have a confusing time trying to understand why this guy’s boyfriend here is that guy’s dying boyfriend there.
Along the way, we drop into some familiar places like a bathhouse in the ’70s; a Stonewall-era piano bar filled with sharp-tongued queens singing show tunes; a hustler and john in a hotel room; and a present-day group therapy session. More uniquely, we also see a couple on the beach in the ’20s; a black emcee at a ’30s Harlem nightclub; and a contemporary internet chatroom. The play’s settings are bookended by a modern-day gay male wedding but the audience doesn’t seem to care much.
McNally is preaching to the converted with Some Men. Many gay men know, or have seen, some version of these scenes before.
As a primer to gay history for a broader audience, this play may have nobler intentions but as it stands, it’s a bit of the same old, same old.
By having the cast take on multiple roles, McNally can subtly weave in the changing ideals and morals that the characters exhibit and encounter over time. For example, if you pay attention, you’ll learn that the African-American boyfriend in this scene is the grandson of that Harlem night club emcee. Or that the guy in group therapy is actually a relative of the drag queen in the Stonewall-era bar. But because things are so brief and roaming, we are not sure who’s who in many places. We are left to wonder if an actor is still playing the same character from a previous scene, or why his boyfriend now has a different accent.
For his part, Blue does his job as director. The action and dialogue are presented in a clear and straightforward manner. Adrian Fehr’s set design and Miles Lavkulich’s lighting are left intentionally sparse to focus on the stories, and allow for easy transitions. But often the whole production feels lost in the large emptiness of the performance space.
The cast generally performs well, although a few did stumble over some lines. The audience also was distracted by the technical challenges with the soundtrack and stage dressing on this night.
In his roles, Nathan Witte has an intensity and magnetism that highlighted his time on stage. In addition, Dana MacInnis brings a welcome freshness and energetic voice to the cast. His joyous expressiveness enlivens his characters and amuses the audience. Jeff Deglow and Nelson Kyle also offer some interesting performances.
While some of the play’s challenges rest with the playwright, others clearly reside with the choices that Blue and company made. I am unsure whether the Brechtian titles that flash on the back curtain to define the action are part of the author’s stage directions, or the director’s invention to guide the audience along this journey.
Regardless, they don’t help as much as they could have because often they were either absent or too faint to read clearly.
Laura Clairmount’s wardrobe is limited as well and does not work to delineate the timeframes we are seeing as clearly as it could have. With the exception of an early 20th century bathing costume, the cast is outfitted in rather drab any-clothing. An ascot may dress up a shirt to suggest a character’s seniority, but why is a hustler in the ’60s wearing sockettes?
Some Men is not a disaster nor, however, is it a resounding success. In fact, it’s merely okay.
I would even go so far as to say disturbingly okay, because with a record of success like McNally’s, having anything less than a captivating time at the theatre is a let down.