theater review

Theater Review: Homos, or Everyone in America

From Homos, or Everyone in America, at the Bank Street Theater. Photo: Monique Carboni

“You are no Larry Kramer,” the Academic shouts at his boyfriend, the Writer, a hothead on a tear about homophobic violence.

“This isn’t Boys in the Band,” the Writer later snaps at the Academic, who sometimes dabbles in campy pronoun play.

The two nods to icons of gay theater encapsulate the concerns and the scale of Homos, or Everyone in America, a new comedy-drama by Jordan Seavey now getting a blisteringly fine world premiere from the Labyrinth Theater Company. Recalling both the furious politics of Kramer’s AIDS jeremiads and the sentimental pathos of Mart Crowley’s pre-Stonewall classic, Homos is as essential to our moment as those works were to theirs. Its portrait of a romance and what comes after — the men meet on a Friendster date in 2006 and break up on an L train platform two years later — brings our picture of gay life into a post-gay era of no-fault hookups, marriage equality, and self-outing teenagers. But with devastatingly pointed intelligence it also dramatizes the irony that despite having won so many of the battles of the Forty Years’ War for liberation, gay men remain as conflicted and as vulnerable to hatred — self- and otherwise — as they were in the bad old days.

How Homos folds itself around that theme is as complicated and astonishing as advanced origami. Like origami too, its materials are deceptively simple. The two main characters, though beautifully drawn, are semi-archetypal, as their “names” suggest: The Academic (Robin De Jesús) is a Latino graduate student in media studies with a wolfish grin and a romantic disposition; the Writer (Michael Urie) is a Jewish neurotic with a flirty mouth and a stockaded heart. The men’s rise and fall as a couple is depicted in a series of standard — almost generic — scenes from a marriage. There’s the drunken meet-cute at a Park Slope wine bar; the euphoria of first contact; the pleasure of discovering their complementary modes of banter; the too-early statement of love and the subtle recoil that follows; the consequent squabbles over drinking, drugging, and wandering eyes; the housing question; the manic avoidance; the possible infidelity with “sort of strapping” Dan; and the explosively tearful final fight that seems to wipe out any good that came before it.

That two men in their 20s are experiencing such ordinary early-adult life events, rather than mourning their cohort or struggling to come out, is sufficient to render them new onstage. But Seavey further complicates matters by slicing the story into jagged shards and jumbling the order. The play’s opening scene, set (it seems at first weirdly) in a Lush bath-products store, actually occurs chronologically late in the story, well after the couple has broken up; later, when we see a fuller version of the same scene near the end of the 105-minute production, entirely different meanings emerge because we now know the history that precedes it. Key moments like that are depicted as many as four times, each with a different frame and aspect ratio. (The intermittent inclusion of Dan, played by Aaron Costa Ganis, suggests the way outside figures both do and do not explain a couple’s problems.) At a more granular level, the flood of coy and often hilarious dialogue recapitulates the structural device with its own intersplicing. Particularly in moments of high erotic or argumentative tension, characters speak in what would have been monologues had Seavey not cut them up into phrases and twined them together as tightly as lovers’ bodies. If the technique risks purpleness, it’s still effective. Manhandling the delivery of information and pushing conversation to its limits of playability, Seavey mimics the confusions of otherness and complicates the relationship between cause and effect, giving us the apology before the fight and the post-traumatic stress before the trauma.

Because, yes, beyond the crushing failure of the relationship there is trauma, though Seavey’s distributive structure keeps it from dominating the action. (In a chronological narrative, that trauma, an act of violence we are not shown, would have produced a false climax two-thirds of the way through.) Still the question arises: What would happen to the pungency of the conversation and the potency of the story if it were all untangled and played straight? Does Homos represent a new, “gay” dramaturgy? Certainly nothing about the production, directed inerrantly by Mike Donahue, is unbent. Dane Laffrey’s scenic design consists of little more than a warren of carpeted corridors twisting in and out of the seating areas so that the actors come to seem like ants in an ant farm that also contains all 69 members of the audience. Scott Zielinski’s lighting chooses uncomfortable extremes of illumination and darkness rather than a pretty middle ground. But what makes the question of the dramaturgy nearly moot is the quality of the acting. In a way, Costa Ganis, as Dan, and Stacey Sargeant, in the role of the Lush salesperson, have the more difficult jobs, needing to hit their emotional marks dead on from a standing start and with huge gaps in their arcs. Still, De Jesús and Urie are remarkable, Urie familiarly so from plays like Buyer & Cellar that demonstrated his flustered charm and gimlet bite. But De Jesús, whom I’ve only previously encountered as an ingratiating third banana in musicals like In the Heights, is a revelation. Both as an arguer (he is, after all the Academic) and as a man who lets his emotions get too far ahead of his stability, he brings overwhelming passion to what might otherwise be a merely theoretical breakthrough of a play.

Seavey, 35, has been bouncing around Off–Off Broadway and the network of regional workshops and retreats for a while. Homos itself has been in development since 2011, when he wrote the first draft after a friend was the victim of a hate crime in Williamsburg. (This timing explains why the Friendster–Myspace–Facebook trajectory outlined in the play ends before reaching Grindr.) The delay, and thus the chance to let the work mellow, must have frustrated the author but may have been beneficial. After all, Seavey is dealing, behind the love story, with very large ideas that have bedeviled the gay “community” — and everyone else — forever. One is the conflict between personal liberty and civil rights that played out in early liberation politics, then got temporarily buried by AIDS; Seavey shows how it has returned within the smaller, normalized context of relationships. It is no less devastating there.

If in exploring that theme he is following the lead of Kramer and Crowley (and Tony Kushner) there is also in Homos the echo of Arthur Miller in his American morality mode. During the course of the play’s action, the Writer sells a short story that connects the murder of an “out gay 15-year-old” to the closetedness of the gay “celebrity journalist” (clearly Anderson Cooper) covering the case. The connection, as the Academic points out, is tenuous at best, yet the play does something similar, connecting an act of homophobic violence to the emotional violence a man may inflict on his lover while breaking up. Are individual choices ever not social and political choices as well? It’s a question turned over and over like a gem in Homos, or Everyone in America, a play you should see only if you care about either of its title characters.

Homos, or Everyone in America is at the Bank Street Theater through December 11.