New writing can be very confronting these days and not just in the “that really affected me” sense. Powerful, difficult drama is more often the norm these days, particularly where auteur theatre practitioners seek to make their mark. How refreshing then to encounter a brace of short plays, hilarious and revelatory, which speak eloquently about taboos and the unspoken realities of modern life. Wesley Talyor’s Proud of Us is insightful, warm, satirical and bloody funny. Like a mix of Arthur Miller and Neil Simon, these were now plays, of and in the moment.
Wesley Talyor is one of Broadway’s bright young things, an actor with credits that include the orginal cast of The Addams Family and a recurring role in Smash. But Taylor is not merely a performer; he has written short plays and ongoing episodic material for the Web, some of which has been successfully migrated to other platforms.
Tonight at New World Stages – Stage 2, Taylor premiered Proud of Us, a collection of seven short plays which, as far as one can tell, were written specifically to be performed for an Actors Fund benefit. Despite the promise of a stellar cast, evenings like this don’t often suggest great things will unfold on stage.
This one certainly did.
Taylor’s plays were all short, sharp and sweet. Ostensibly brightly comic, each carefully negotiated a frank discussion about some of the remaining taboos in society, covering topics such as the value society puts on artists, familial bonds and sexual identity, jealousy and the fragility of relationships, committed or otherwise. Never preachy or wearying, the plays, individually and collectively, said much about modern America (well, the Western world really) in a frank and funny way.
The writing is incisive and bold, freely adopting the vernacular and pop culture accoutrements of the 21st Century to great effect. It all seems so easy, so simple, so fresh, and it is – but each play has a beating, broken heart, and Taylor ensures that the message about that heart is clearly conveyed and lingers in your thoughts long after lights out.
Billy Porter directed proceedings – efficiently and with skilful insight. Some chairs constituted the set, along with adjustable lecterns. Nothing else was really needed; the emphasis was on the words and the characters. Rightly. Summer Strallen, surprisingly, read stage directions to set the various scenes – not perhaps her best work, but not entirely problematic either. In truth, the plays spoke for themselves and quickly introduced themselves. Leslie Kritzer was a glittering – and raucously funny – host and kept things moving along as scenes were changed.
There were seven plays and none were related in any particular way. Yet, they all felt of a type and all seemed linked stylistically and thematically. One could see how these plays could be performed with only four actors, but Porter had many more at his disposal here. One could also see how these vignettes could be turned into a remarkable song cycle. There is a lot of potential in Taylor’s writing.
The first play, Little Monsters II, appears to be a sequel of kinds to a play Taylor wrote for last year’s benefit performance. Featuring Kevin McHale (Nate) and Sklyar Astin (Lucas), it concerned two gay friends in the same room texting obsessively and not really communicating. Suddenly, the more confident Nate suggests that they have sex. Lucas, who has obviously long dreamed of such an encounter, is not sure how to take the offer. Banter and defence mechanisms abound – as neither is really prepared to reveal their hand. Technology rules emotions and the very nature of human intercourse. Beautifully played, Little Monsters II was delightfully funny, sad and touching. If it doesn’t make you ignore social media as a way to connect with others, little would.
Politically Correct sizzled. William Connell’s Dennis is a white comedian who does not abide political correctness and can’t understand why black people cant take a joke at their expense. His entitled position is eviscerated by Samaria Nixon-Fleming who takes a scalpel to his self-centred thinking, all the while wondering how to deal with her undeniable sexual attraction to him. Samantha Ware’s Joy helped make the deficiencies of Dennis reverberate – no one left the discussion unbruised. The audience chortled and guffawed – but the razor sharp honesty of Samaria’s position was eloquently, smartly presented.
A modern day riff on The Graduate, Faye was impeccably presented. Chloe is waiting for her new boyfriend, Justin, to arrive to take her on a date to see a movie. Her father, James, wants to size up the lad and to law down his version of parental law. Chloe would prefer he kept out of it. But James insists and invites Justin in for a chat. What no one expects is that it is lust at first sight for Justin and Chloe’s mother, Faye.
Carolle Carmello, as Faye, was scintilating to watch; she practically undressed in front of Jack Griffo’s hormone-charged Justin – without removing a single item. She all but ravaged Griffo with her eyes, her breath, her womanhood. Effortlessly moving from caring but slightly distant mother to breathless, breathy and ravenous eater of perfectly formed young men, Carmello played the part to the hilt, underscoring the inherent discomfort of the scene and the easy humour of it. Griffo matched her ache for ache; few words, much sexual tension.
Age differences in relationships are rarely seen so sexually charged on stage and the Carmello/Griffo attraction was profound, balance beautifully against the casual idiocy of Terrence Mann’s dopey James and Alexandra Socha’s increasingly hysterical Chloe.
If it was good to see Taylor examining sexual attraction across the generations, it was truly shocking to see him lay bare the brutal realities of actor/agent dynamics in the negotiation of an artist’s engagement for a Broadway play. Negotiations questioned the entire basis for having an agent, and at the same time plainly addressed the simple reality that talent is irrelevant to most producers.
Maulik Pancholy’s Sam has been offered the lead role, almost never offstage, in a play headed for Broadway and starring Scarlett Johansson. His agent, Jade, talks big but is incapable of making even the simplest point to the producer on the end of the phone, a person too scared to speak to Sam the way he can speak to Jade. With the Agent as filter, the worst can be done to Sam.
And it is. By the end of the negotiation, Sam is paying to be in the cast as he needs and wants the work. If only it was a truly absurd situation – but it’s not. Actors and performers are regularly expected to pay to perform, whether by actually shelling out money for travel, costumes and funding rehearsals and performances or in other ways – subsidising their wage by savings or extra work.
Taylor’s writing is compelling, acerbic, awful in its ramifications, but inescapably honest. Truly disturbing and beautifully played by Klausner and Pancholy. Pancholy sublimely encapsulated the agony of the actor: wanting to act and wanting to survive.
There followed two plays, Be Free and Hard Knocks, both of which looked at fragmenting relationships. In Be Free a lesbian couple parts ways; In Hard Knocks Matthew Morrison’s loser Devlin takes out his frustrations about himself on long-term bestie, Jim (Bryce Pinkham), a very successful gay man with an adoring partner (Michael Urie, in hilarious form with hair that made its own entrance). Both plays used terse, tense and tyrannical language to cover over the cracks in the person who can’t cope with the relationship anymore, although the motivaitons in each case were very different – a new love in one case; bitter jealousy in the other.
The acting here was really excellent (Pinkham was the odd one out, his characteristic blandness being totally jarring here) and in a few short sentences, Taylor managed to perfectly etch out the issues and difficulties these characters face in a world where apearances and status matter more than care and affection. Raven Symoné was exceptional as the betraying Jackie, trying to goad Carmello’s Raya into bad behaviour. Carmello herself was pitch perfect, a complete contrast to her earlier unforgettable Faye. Morrison unelashed his inner bitter arsehat perfectly.
The final play of the evening, Proud of Us, featured Marc Kudisch and vibrant youngster Noah Hinsdale, playing father and son, Roy and Joshua. Roy wants to bond with his son and so asks him to work in the great outdoors with him to build something, anything that Joshua wants. He chooses a stage and dreams about casting his friends in a production of The Wizard of Oz. This is not good news for Roy but he rumbles along, keeping his end of the bargain. Inevitably, there is a confrontaton between father and son which revolves around Roy’s certainty about Joshua’s sexuality.
Perhaps the most uplifting play of the evening, Proud of Us is warm and witty but it deals honestly with important subjects: the supposed need for everyone to know everyone else’s sexuality; the way stereotypes distort and endanger lives; and the true meaning of acceptance and individuality. “I’m eleven!” could be a rallying cry for the oppressed everywhere.
Taylor’s pot-pourri of seven plays did what all great theatre does: it transported the audience to other perspectives, entertained and provoked, stimulated and satisified. Look out for Taylor’s first full length play – his skill with character, dialogue and meaning is acute and deserves wider playing fields.