Brian Freeman's play about activist Bayard Rustin strives to lift from obscurity a man instrumental to the struggle for black civil rights (he co-organized the 1963 March on Washington) whose flamboyance and sexual orientation also made him a liability to the movement at the time. (Rustin was often indiscreet, jailed on a "morals" charge in 1953.) Freeman's documentary style, culled from his own research and interviews, employs a cast of five, most in multiple roles, and characters often address an unseen interviewer, à la Anna Deavere Smith. The show has two stunning scenes. In one, the black gay musician Jonathan Brice (played by Freeman himself) is in a wheelchair, speaking in a gentle stammer of his own life and then introducing us to Rustin. Brice's decency, integrity, and personality radiate from Freeman. Unfortunately, nothing similar occurs until June Lomena (who displays great comic presence in several smaller roles) portrays the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Lomena, a woman, digs deep into the soul of this principled man who knew Rustin. He explains that while he believes homosexuality is a sin, he cannot fathom how people can judge and commit acts of violence against gays. Brice and Shuttlesworth ring deep and true. Davis Platt (Mark H. Dold), a former (white) lover who lived with Rustin briefly, isn't personalized enough and remains hazy. But the main problem is that Rustin (Duane Boutté, who is perfect for the role) remains an enigma, due partly to the kind of man he was, and partly to the failures of Freeman's script. As Freeman renders him, Rustin doesn't question himself, and his personality never seems to change. Black, gay, flamboyant, smart, beautiful, organizationally gifted, promiscuous -- in this play, Rustin never rises above Freeman's labels.
Phil Legrand (Warren David Keith) has lost his desire for his wife. During her pregnancy she has grown two inches and is now taller than Phil, which damages the dynamic of the relationship for him. He thinks of himself as symparanakromenoi, Greek for "the walking dead," a person who has never been saved by love. He is intrigued by a falcon he sees kill a pigeon in the city, has an affair with a petite woman who is a raptor enthusiast, and feels a kinship with the haggard tiercel (a falconry term for the adult male falcon, which is smaller than the female); it's his totem animal. He captures and attempts to tame the falcon, which dies. He then eats it, in time-honored totemic fashion, and his desire for his wife is reawakened. Besides hammering its central metaphor to death, writer/director David Ford's play has a more obvious problem. The evening is presented as a lecture for the "Society of the Symparanakromenoi" of which Phil is the president and sole member, although he's trying to find recruits among the audience. Yet Phil isn't among the walking dead -- he's back in love, so the lecture conceit doesn't work. This examination of fidelity and desire has moments of cleverness and even loveliness (Ford's language can go to surprising places) but Phil's overthinking and neuroses get tiresome. Phil's (and Ford's) constructs ultimately stifle instead of reveal.
The Irish ... and How They Got That Way!
Frank McCourt's personal version of a PBS fund-raiser strings Irish folk songs together in a chatty running narrative about Ireland from the early 1800s; happy talk between each song sets the music in its historical context. The show would be interesting if it didn't try so hard to be "Oirish," if the song list were worthwhile, or if the singers were any good. But the between-song chatter indulges in potato jokes and phony sentiment; the songs include moldy chestnuts like "Danny Boy" and "If You're Irish, This Is the Place for You," and the cast is largely indifferent. The much-lauded tenor Marsh Hanson is the worst thing onstage: His malletlike subtlety makes a ballad like "Rare Ould Times" sound like a Night Ranger song. Elizabeth Whyte, who has the distinction of being Irish, does better; she at least finds humor in the material, even if her performance is hesitant. Same with the fiddle player, Susan Voelz. Apparently McCourt wrote the show on the heels of Angela's Ashes as a fund-raiser for the Irish Rep in New York, and it took off against everyone's expectations. This doesn't surprise me at all. Irish has every element of a blockbuster -- patriotic nostalgia, historical trivia, familiar tunes, and embarrassingly maudlin performances that are interesting enough after a couple of drinks.
--Michael Scott Moore