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Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays
By Elyse Sommer
Given that this bite-sized anthology is by a bunch of A-List playwrights and the sextet seated at the music stands consists of well-known stage and television actors, this good cause concept now has all the earmarks of a long life shades of Love, Loss and What I Wore., long before that The Vagina Monologues, and in a similar but more fully staged vein, Motherhood Out Loud. Plans are already afoot for rotating Standing On Ceremony casts and since the number of commissioned playlets had to be cut down to fit everything into the 90-minute run time that's become something of a standard for this type of theatrical evening, even the texts being presented may change to keep things fresh and encourage repeat visits.
Besides not requiring fancy staging or for the actors to memorize lengthy dialogue and thus attract stellar rotating casts, Standing On Ceremony retains its initial do-good purpose as the producers are donating a portion of all ticket sales to Freedom to Marry and other organizations promoting marriage equality. Even if you snag a ticket for The Book of Mormon or the Ùber--charismatic Hugh Jackman, it won't give you the satisfaction of doing your bit for a worthy cause.
Most New Yorkers, most especially theater going New Yorkers — and to refine that even more, downtown theater goers— won't argue that gay couples should be able to marry in every state of the union. The various explorations of the lingering bigotry and restrictions faced by same sex marrieds will thus make their mark by rousing an emotional hallelujah response from the Minetta Lane's choir audience. Still, while raising awareness for universal gay marriage acceptance may not be as necessary a component for this New York production than one at a regional theater in a more conservative location, the focus on humor and the broad range of challenges explored — both those special to same sex couples as the typical anxieties and joys of any marriage — are likely to sell enough tickets to benefit the above mentioned charities.
Aside from its worthy mission Standing on Ceremony is a mixed bag. Delivering a message and making it work as a dramatic entertainment in just ten minutes is as challenging as. . .well, as making a marriage work. The playwrights make their points, often quite trenchantly and with enough humor to avoid heavy-handedness. The plays are smartly arranged. The opening piece, Jordan Harrison's Revision, about an impending nuptial, is book-ended by Jose Rivera's Pablo & Andrew at the Altar of Words; which makes Sarah Zeitler's silvery chairs, altar and curtain tied back with two giant double rings more than a decorative backdrop. The problem is that good intentions and valid observations don't always transform a reading into a fully theatrical play.
Craig Bierko and Richard Thomas start things off as the about to be married couple rewriting the vows they're about to more fittingly describe what applies to them within the current social and legal zeitgeist. Thus, In the eyes of God, according Thomas's groom-to-be should be "In the eyes of God and the ever-shifting whims of state and federal constitutional law." Point well taken, but the play as a play, even allowing for the time limitaton, never quite comes untethered from its music stand presentation. Ditto for Wendy MacLeod's This Flight Tonight in which Beth Leavel and Polly Draper do their best to make the one partner's skittishness about beginning their lesbian marriage in Iowa funny and touching.
But while MacLeod does send the two women off to Iowa as planned, it isn't until Harriet Harris takes hold of the microphone as Ohio matron Mary Abigail Carstairs -Sweetbuckle, that this enterprise really gains altitude as an entertainment as well as in terms of saying something. In the deliciously funny monologue The Gay Agenda Paul Rudnick has crowded his mouthpiece's mind with enough prejudices to rival the pigeons on New York sidewalks. And Harriet Harris delivers the the Ohioan lady's pronouncements on Jews, Muslims, the Chinese (whom she likes because "their children make my jackets") with dead-on timing. As for gays, she loves her neighbors even though she worries that they'll seduce her husband and she draws the line at, you guessed it, marriage for gays. Rudnick a master at this type of wildly satirical humor and Harris's Mary Abigail would make a fine partner for Peter Bartlett's Mr. Charles in Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach which debuted at EST's 1998 One-Act Marathon .
Harris is a woman of a quite different mindset (though just as funny) in another Rudnick piece. This time around she's Gabrielle Finkelstein, a Jewish mother more than accepting about son Michael's (Mark Consuelos) being gay, but not about his being single. and apparently without prospects.
Charles Wright's adaptation of an actual Facebook thread that's entitled, what else, On Facebook, engages the whole company in expressing a variety of viewpoints. It's a clever idea that somehow feels long-winded and unfinished. Neil LaBute's Strange Fruit is typical Neil LaBute in that it sends its two altar-bound men (Craig Bierko & Mark Conselos) into very dark territory and also displays his penchant for titles that metaphorically hint at where he's going to take you. Draper and Leavel return for another lesbian piece, Mo Gaffney Traditional Wedding which is basically a post-morten by the two "brooms" about their recent complete-with-all-the-trimmings (and expenses) wedding.
While the two Rudnick contributions provide the show's biggest laughs, it's the penultimate London Mosquitoes written by Moises Kaufman and performed by Richard Thomas that really grabs at the heart and gives us the most dramatically effective and memorable ten minutes. The structure is simple enough — a grieving man delivers a eulogy reflecting on his 46-years with the lover he's lost to pancreatic cancer. But Kaufman has managed to make that eulogy serve as a powerful love story, made even more powerful by Richard Thomas's emotionally resonant portrayal of the grieving partnerer.
But life goes on, and Standing On Ceremony predictably follows Kaufman's touching tear jerker by inviting the company and the audience to partake in the feel good wedding of Pablo and Andrew (Craig Bierko and Mark Consuelos).
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