By Manning Harris
7 Stages’ first production under the leadership of Artistic Director Heidi S. Howard and Managing Director Mack Headrick is Atlanta playwright Topher Payne’s explosive comedy/drama “Angry Fags,” running through March 17.
This is a play that is already stirring a bit of controversy, partly because of the title. For example, WABE radio’s Myke Johns, in an interview with the playwright, mentions that “we can’t say the title on the radio.”
The fearless, prolific Mr. Payne is well aware of this; he comments on the power of the word in a telling essay in the theatre program. I think he would agree, in principle at least, with the late Gore Vidal, who once said, “Words are our masters, a lot more than deeds.” And, like Madonna, Mr. Payne is not afraid of causing a commotion.
Back to the play. Bennett (Jacob York) and Cooper (Johnny Drago) are two gay men, best friends; Bennett works for Allison Haines (Melissa Carter), a lesbian state senator running for re-election against the ostensibly conservative Peggy Musgrove (Marcie Millard). Also on the staff is a delightful young woman named Kimberly (Sueheyla El-Attar) and an attractive, affable man named Adam (John Benzinger).
One night Cooper and Bennett hear that a good friend has been savagely attacked and beaten in an apparent hate crime. The two friends are horrified; then they get angry; then they decide to get even. At this point the play becomes not only a pleasant, comedic satire, but a sort of gay militant manifesto. Cooper decides that revenge is in order, and shortly dispatches the man he presumes is his friend’s killer.
The problem is that the power of violence is addictive; if killing one thug is satisfactory, how about blowing up a building? Bear in mind, these events start occurring right in the midst of a mildly sexy, funny romantic comedy. Mr. Payne writes brilliant, sharp comedic dialogue; even if “Angry Fags” is ultimately less than totally successful, I think that major, big-time success for him is inevitable; he already has quite a following: On opening night an enthusiastic audience laughed and applauded even when the comedy of the piece had sort of eroded for me.
Most people—make that many people—know that we live in volatile, often angry political times; and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and marriage and employment inequality are still with us. And many people, the playwright is saying, don’t seem to think gay people are capable of anger, and certainly not to be feared. This play is billed as “a world premiere comedy with a body count.”
However, when a charming character is murdered, smothered to death by a gay “friend”, the play stopped being funny for me; the wind went out of the show’s sails. I realize we’re dealing with larger issues, perhaps metaphorical or allegorical; but at that point these charming young gay men became the Gestapo. I couldn’t trust them any more; their jokes fell flat.
Of course, I’m merely relating my own personal reaction. The show becomes very suspenseful near the end; there are two intermissions. The last time I saw a show with two intermissions was “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” on Broadway.
The actors are well-chosen and are outstanding; perhaps the almost manic Mr. Drago is first among equals. I loved Nadia Morgan’s set design: all those televisions. The medium is the message. We’re witnessing a premiere of an important show which I think will get better. As Browning said, “Except a man’s reach exceed his grasp, what’s a heaven for?”
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