I'm afraid that I'm beginning to repeat myself when it comes to the plays presented by Gypsy Productions at the Suncoast Theatre. Aside from their very first show — Slap and Tickle, which I ranked as one of the top 10 plays of 2003 — Gypsy has consistently offered second- and third-rate material, usually on gay themes, and usually displaying no more insight than you'd find on an alternate-lifestyle All My Children. Nile Blue was an unconvincing pseudo-Egyptian soaper, asking "Can this love last?" A Perfect Relationship was a mediocre love triangle sitcom, asking "Can this love happen?" and Parallel Lives was a series of pallid comic sketches that might have been innovative 20 years ago, but in this century was depressingly musty. Then there was Corpus Christi, a tedious affair that neither shocked nor entertained with its gambit of a gay Jesus coming of age in East Texas. And it was all the more distressing in that, while we in the audience writhed with ennui, the actors on stage seemed to be experiencing catharsis.
In each of these cases, the script was the problem, which is to say that someone at Gypsy isn't being very demanding in his programming. Things may change with the September production of Martin Sherman's Bent — a play I've been hearing good things about for years — but at the moment I just want to warn artistic director Trevor Keller that there's an Everest of bad theater out there, and only a small gold mine of top-notch scripts. If Gypsy's going to become an important feature of the local theater scene, it'll have to know where to dig.
Which brings me to Gypsy's current offering: the boring, bland, prosaic, predictable Community Property, by Ed Stevens. This take-off on Noel Coward's Private Lives has none of Coward's wit, musicality or wistful sophistication. What it has is an idea: Where Coward had straight couples, let's have two gay couples — and Private Lives' plot.
Besides this idea, there's virtually nothing remarkable about the play's concept, dialogue or characters. The design is attractive: Scott Cooper's set of a shared terrace outside two Fire Island hotel rooms is quietly elegant, and Donald W. Roeseke Jr.'s contemporary costumes couldn't be more appropriate.
Only one of the four actors turns in a winning performance, and Stevens' script is so unremarkable, it's hard even to focus on this performer for two full acts. Two full acts without a single idea, innovative plot twist or original approach to character. The mind boggles at the thought of such consistent mediocrity. Yes, Coward was gay, and yes, a canny deconstruction of Private Lives might demonstrate how the Amanda and Sybil of that famous play were really stand-ins for Andrew and Seymour. But Community Property doesn't attempt anything that ambitious. What it wants, instead, is just to tantalize us with the question, who will go to bed with whom? To which the answer is, when the characters are this shallow, who really cares? Why on earth would it matter?
If you're familiar with Private Lives, you'll recognize the plot of Community Property. Two couples are vacationing during Gay Pride Weekend in New York: Eric and Kit, and Adam and Pete. Their hotel rooms share a terrace, and it's out on this terrace that Eric discovers that Adam, his former lover, is next door. The two men, rattled, first try to convince their current amours that it's time to skip town; when that doesn't work, they bite the bullet and have it out with each other. It turns out that behind the anger and recriminations, the old love hasn't ceased to sizzle. So Eric and Adam leave their current lovers in the lurch and run off to Niagara Falls together.
In their upstate hotel room they try to salvage their relationship, but things get complicated when Kit and Pete show up with some demands of their own. Will Adam and Eric stay together? Will Pete and Kit start an affair? And, most important of all, aside from the fact that these couples are gay, is there anything, anything that distinguishes this play from As the World Turns or The Young and the Restless?
At least we're able to enjoy the acting of Billy Masuck as Adam. The boyish Masuck is an understated performer who clearly recognizes that in the small Suncoast Theatre space, every gesture is notable, and too big a performance will seem artificial. So Masuck focuses on the details, and gives us an Adam who's innocent, honest, easily wounded — and utterly credible, whomever he's pairing off with.
An opposite performance is turned in by Joel Castillo. Castillo's a talented thespian, but his Kit is too vivid, too flamboyant for this small canvas. Gabriel Leel never seems comfortable as athlete/policeman Pete, and John Russo as Eric seems regularly distracted, as if he belongs in a different play altogether. Keller's direction is solid, though, and Richard Traylor's lighting couldn't be better.
The question remains, why isn't Gypsy offering better plays? Granted, not every production can be an Angels in America, but surely there are more interesting scripts on gay themes than the ones this theater company has given us this year. I saw one only a few weeks ago: Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre. This is the story of a boy's discovery that he's gay, and his ultimate decision to come out to his family. The play is beautifully written, astonishingly generous in its depiction of subsidiary characters, funny and unpredictable and conscious of the larger social and political world in which the tale unfolds. Why is it that FST, which has no particular gay agenda, brought the public this winner, while Gypsy, which is devoted to gay theater, is bringing us trifles like Community Property?
Let's call this The Suncoast Mystery.
And let's admit that, right now, that mystery is the only intriguing item at the Suncoast Theatre.
Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected].