Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Schizoid Gays in a Quiet Place

A Quiet Place, an opera composed by Leonard Bernstein, was recently presented at the New York City Opera [not to be confused with the Met] where it got some surprisingly good reviews. A Quiet Place, which had very few American performances during Bernstein's lifetime, began life as a tuneful 1952 one-act entitled Trouble in Tahiti. With an engaging score and a pretty good libretto by Bernstein, Trouble told the story of the dysfunctional marriage of Sam and Dinah. It was a memorable short work, the title of which referred to a piece of "technicolor twaddle" that Dinah goes to see at the movies.

But Bernstein wasn't satisfied with Trouble; it wasn't serious enough, so -- working with librettist Stephen Wadsworth (whose personal life I know nothing of, except that he has a wife) -- Bernstein expanded his little one-act into a full-length opera entitled A Quiet Place, the title taken from one of Dinah's songs in Trouble. It made its debut in Houston in 1983. All of the music from Trouble in Tahiti was used in the new work in flashback sequences.

In the new opera, Dinah has been killed in an accident, and their little boy, Junior, is a schizophrenic. His lover, Francois, is now married to Junior's sister, Dede -- talk about making someone schizophrenic!

Now at this point I must interject that Bernstein was a married homosexual who -- like many married homosexuals do -- probably preferred to think of himself as a hip bisexual. Therefore the whole idea of Francois ditching Junior to marry his boyfriend's sister, may have just seemed like some trendy bisexual chic. In reality, it's an utterly cruel and grotesque situation, which librettist Wadsworth never really explores. I mean, talk about situations that would fuck a guy up. As I wrote in my book The Opera of the Twentieth Century, it's never made clear if Francois' falling for his sister exacerbated or actually engendered Junior's instability. It is suggested that Dede and Francois married out of their mutual love for Junior, who needs looking after, but Francois sings a [second-rate] aria reaffirming his love for and commitment to Dede. Poor Junior.

Perhaps something interesting could have been made of this, but Wadsworth's libretto is pretty lousy, being more pretentious than profound, and does little to illuminate these rather screwed-up characters [I mean, a woman who would marry her brother's boyfriend, and vice versa!], although there's a fairly moving wind-up and Bernstein's relentlessly non-melodic music [aside from the excerpts from Trouble in Tahiti] doesn't help.

What's more interesting is some of the comments Christopher Alden, who directed this latest production of A Quiet Place, made to Olivia Giovetti of Time Out New York Magazine. "There's a lot of Bernstein in many of the characters. [In Francois] there's that fantasy of bisexuality or a gay man suddenly turning straight." As for Junior, Alden says, "It seems a bit of a throwback to the past where anytime gay characters were presented, they had to be shown to be problematical people." While it might have been admirable to present some sort of gay characters in an opera some years ago, it's the Same Old Story when we see a shizoid fag and a "bisexual" man who opts to marry his lover's sister. Sheesh! No thank you, Bernstein!

A Quiet Life looks at homosexuality from the confines of the closet, where Bernstein and others like him resided for most of their lives. It doesn't present a hip look at bisexuality or "sexual fluidity" so much as to all intents and purposes it simply avoids the subject of homosexuality altogether.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Brothers and Sisters" Straight Gay Couple

The ABC-TV series Brothers and Sisters, which has been running for a number of years now, admirably has a few gay characters, as I've noted in the past. The main couple is Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys, on the left in the photo), who is part of the main family in the show, and his boyfriend Scotty (openly gay Luke Mcfarlane, on the right).

Although it also dealt with other issues, the main storyline for the past two weeks has been a crisis in the marriage between Kevin and Scotty. It's a question if the relationship will survive. It centers on something that Scotty did several months in the past.

Now you might wonder, what did Scotty do? Did he fall in love with someone else? Decide to become an ex-gay? Tell Kevin he was lousy in bed and wanted out? None of the above. The horrible, unbelievable, absolutely awful thing Scotty did was ---

-- have a completely meaningless one-night-stand with another man on a night that Kevin blew him off for an event that Kevin knew was very special to Scotty.

Did I say this was meaningless casual sex? No one caught any diseases. Scotty did not see the fellow again, he did not fall in love with him, he did not have a male mistress or a continuing romantic affair.

It was just one lousy night, sheesh.

But Kevin and Scotty and all of the relatives are acting just the way some straight couples do when there's an "indiscretion." [And let's not call this an extra-marital affair; it was one night or less.] Yes, they are a monogamous couple who had even planned to raise a baby and Kevin is all hurt and what-not, but even women whose husbands stray in this fashion can forgive and move on. Presumably that will be the case for Kevin, but all the fucking angst in the last two episodes, you would think Scotty had impregnated some gal and was planning to march to the altar with her.

It's just all so terribly conventional, so middle-class. Like an episode of Dr. Phil, where he counsels a fat, fifty-year-old housewife who's all hysterical because her husband had sex with a hooker [had sex, period!] or went to a strip club. You can see Kevin on the show whining to Dr. Phil about Kevin's infidelity, even though it happened months ago, that it meant absolutely nothing, that Scotty still loves Kevin, and Scotty only did it because he understandably felt abandoned by his somewhat self-centered and borderline bitchy lover.

Such angst, such hand-wringing! I mean, get over it already! The most (unintentionally) hilarious scene had Kevin's gay uncle Saul (Ron Rifkin), who is seventy and spent most of his life in the closet [he didn't even come out when he learned he had a gay nephew] daring to angrily lecture Scotty, who is such a sweet guy [borderline cloying at times] that it immediately seemed like massive overkill.

[Speaking of Uncle Saul, he didn't come out until he was seventy and he winds up with Stephen Collins as a boyfriend (Collins plays "Charlie")! Even at sixty-three handsome Collins is a mite out of Saul's league. Collins plays the role just a touch stereotypically.]

I recognize there is a movement to "humanize" gays and make it clear that we are just like everybody else -- how depressing -- but the fact is that the gay community has always had its own rules and a freer mind-set. Now that more gay people are coming out of the closet, we're getting the viewpoints and influence of more conservative -- more conventional -- gays. I'm all for the diversity of the gay community, and feel every gay person has the right, more or less, to live as they choose, but there's something a little disquieting about a major gay couple on a popular TV program reacting to what should be a minor incident the way that a stereotypical straight couple would.

No offense whatsoever intended to heterosexuals, but what the world doesn't need is straight gay people.

These two episodes were excruciatingly awful, never more so than when the guy Scotty had the one-night-stand with shows up at the restaurant he owns. The guy was depicted as slick and callow, and at one point he even gets punched in the face by Kevin's straight brother [this uncomfortably reminded me of a gay-bashing]. This happens after pathetic Kevin punches out a completely innocent waiter, confusing him with the other guy. None of this was funny or dramatic, just silly and quite desperate. Surely the writers of the show can come up with more dramatic developments for Kevin and Scotty than this hysteria over a one-night quickie? Even the straight characters on the show don't carry on so over infidelity!

It's great to have gay characters on TV, but when they're poorly handled it seems like a shameful waste of a great opportunity.