Friday, July 8, 2011
MOXIE’s Poster Boys at Diversionary: Funny … and More
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
You wouldn’t know it from the press materials on Poster Boys, the current U.S. premiere co-production of Diversionary and MOXIE at the Diversionary space, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights, but the play is inspired by a true story. In 2003 Vancity, a credit union based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, mounted an ad campaign that tried to build business by highlighting — or shamelessly exploiting, depending on your point of view — Vancity’s Queer members. The ads featured photos of same-sex couples and bore the slogan, “I want to bank with people who value all partnerships.” The Vancouver archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church responded by pulling out of a school program sponsored by Vancity.
Playwright Michele Riml was working at Grey Global Group, the advertising agency that had created Vancity’s “value all partnerships” campaign, and she saw a great idea for a play about the controversy. Only it took her a while to write it, she told interviewers before Poster Boys had its world premiere in Vancouver in March 2008, because she first had to work through her anger at the incident. “For me, anger is not a good place to write from,” she said. As she began to work out her plot, she created the central character of Caroline, a 40-something ad executive at the Zenspiration agency who’s angling for a promotion to vice-president even though her personal life is a mess.
Caroline sees the chance for a career breakthrough when the executives at the Clearwater Credit Union in Orlando, Florida decide to do a series of ads promoting “cultural diversity” — which, it soon develops, is code for “Gay.” She instructs her ambitious assistant and out-of-office boy-toy, Brad (Justin Lang), to come up with the perfect Gay poster boy for Clearwater’s campaign. Brad brings back an unprepossessing middle-aged man named Jack (John Anderson), who shows up at Zenspiration in the sweat shirt and blue bike shorts he was wearing when Brad ran into him. Caroline is unexpectedly (at least if you haven’t read the promotional material for the play) on edge about getting involved with Jack professionally — because, it turns out, 13 years previously she was involved with Jack personally, not only as his lover but as his fiancée. The two had actually got as far as setting a wedding date before Jack decided he’d had enough and came out as Gay — “He wanted to wear a purple cummerbund,” Caroline grimly jokes; “that should have been the giveaway” — and Caroline has been gun-shy about anything resembling a serious relationship ever since.
The plot thickens when Caroline and Brad realize that a photo layout of one man really doesn’t say “Gay.” They decide they need two men in a committed relationship and rather nervously ask if Jack has a partner. He does: Carson (Charles Maze), a rising young architect who’s been with Jack for five years. Carson is also a hard-core Roman Catholic who insists on saying grace before every meal he and Jack share, and given his church’s belief (stated 27 years ago by the current Pope) that homosexuality is “an objective moral disorder” and their extensive donations to anti-Queer political candidates and ballot measures, being a Queer Catholic is close to the mother of all cognitive dissonances. The plot of Poster Boys turns on Jack’s and Carson’s discomfort with the process by which they’re made over into images for Queer equality and both their appearances and backgrounds are remodeled into commodities that will sell a product.
The promotion line for the Diversionary/MOXIE production — “An advertising executive’s ‘diversity’ campaign runs afoul of the Catholic Church. She can handle that. What she can’t handle is that one of the poster boys is her ex-fiancé” — suggests that Poster Boys will either be a sitcom or a farce, and that it will turn into a romantic triangle (or a romantic quadrilateral) as Caroline and Jack find themselves re-attracted to each other and Carson gets jealous. Nothing of the sort happens; though Poster Boys is quite funny it’s also a much richer drama than the ads for it suggest. Riml clearly regards Jack as definitively Gay — whatever drew him to Caroline in the first place, which is kept ambiguous, it’s clear he’s committed not only to Carson but to a Gay identity and, if anything is going to break them up, doubt about Jack’s sexual orientation is not going to be it.
Riml’s great gift as a playwright is a kind of sly subtlety that enables her to say quite a lot — about advertising, capitalism in general, the social creation of “reality,” emotional relationships and how people react differently to them as they age — without hammering the audience over the head with it. In one scene we see Jack and Carson at dinner — and then, in a staging maneuver director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg makes look more like a quick cut in a film than anything we’d expect in live theatre — Caroline is in Carson’s place and the scene becomes a dream of the marriage they could have had. Riml’s gag is that Jack and Carson are behaving like a typical straight couple — the issues in their relationship aren’t sex but money and careers (indeed, we get the distinct impression that whatever sexual fires brought them together are pretty well banked by now) — while Caroline is behaving like a stereotypical middle-aged Gay man, reliving her youth by seeking a much younger male partner for frenzied, emotionless sex.
Throughout the play, Caroline is bedeviled by two authoritative voices coaxing her, sometimes to the point of browbeating her. One comes from her boss at Zenspiration, Marty (who was an unseen voice in the Vancouver production but, in an inspired touch from director Turner Sonnenberg, is seen here as an image as well as a voice, supposedly in wireless communication with Caroline via computer, though the program doesn’t credit the actor who plays him), who’s hectoring her to come up with the “branding” for the Clearwater account that will turn it from a one-shot ad to something that will make people what Caroline calls “brand believers” in Clearwater. The other is a character identified only as “The Woman,” whom Riml stipulates must be played in drag by the same actor who plays Carson, who materializes in Caroline’s consciousness (usually accompanied by memories of airplane flights — Caroline is chronically airsick but her job requires her to fly a lot) and gives her a ragbag of advice, some good (like “be yourself”) and some bad (like “take Botox”).
Poster Boys is an engaging script that builds to a riveting climax in which the whole task of pushing Jack and Carson as the ideal Gay couple flashes back to Caroline’s own trauma when Jack left her and declared himself Gay, while Jack and Carson both rebel against the whole idea of going through a wedding ceremony sponsored by a corporation. It seemed to be leading up to an ending in which Jack and Carson would have realized that, like it or not, in today’s hyper-capitalist age virtually the only way to get a political or social message out to an audience large enough to matter is to get a corporation or a rich person to sponsor it — and so they would go through the showcase wedding, Clearwater would get their branding (and the boost to their business they were hoping for) and Caroline her promotion — or maybe younger, cuter, more energetic Brad would have back-stabbed her out of it and got the vice-presidency himself. Instead Riml resorted to a clichéd finish straight out of the 1945 novel The Hucksters (and the 1947 film based on it) and quite a few other stories since that have dealt with advertising and how one can’t succeed in it and still maintain a conscience.
But the disappointing conclusion doesn’t invalidate what’s gone before — or the marvelous work MOXIE’s and Diversionary’s people have done bringing Riml’s finely honed play to life. Director Turner Sonnenberg has staged it with such precision that, as noted above, at times it seems more like a movie than a play, and she and lighting director Michelle Caron have worked out a series of cues that allows us to follow multiple planes of action without ever having to wonder which we’re supposed to think is more important. Turner Sonnenberg has also cast the play perfectly — indeed, if the reviews of the Vancouver premiere online are to be believed, she cast at least one part better than they did. Vancouver critic Colin Thomas said Carson was “as camp as a row of tents” — but fortunately that’s not how he’s played here. Charles Maze delivers a rich characterization that projects Carson as proud of his career and also his homemaking skills, accepting himself as Gay while still being burdened by the clash between his sincere belief in the faith of his fathers and the nasty things it has to say about him as a Gay man. He’s equally good — and non-campy — as “The Woman,” delivering his lines matter-of-factly and without a hint of flounce.
The other cast members are equally fine. Julie Anderson Sachs nails both Caroline’s assertiveness and her underlying vulnerability. She’s a genuinely attractive woman but, thanks to Caron’s merciless lighting and a minimal makeup job (oddly, here as in the past MOXIE doesn’t credit a makeup artist), we see her crow’s feet and the lines on her face and feel for her fears about advancing age. John Anderson is good in a befuddled, what-have-I-got-myself-into? mode as Jack, and he achieves pathos when he has to admit that he too shaded his background (representing himself as co-owner of an independent bookstore when in fact he’s just the store manager), though Riml rather underwrote the character and didn’t make him strong enough for us to see what attracted either Caroline or Carson to him. Justin Lang is genuinely hot and nails Brad’s irrepressible energy while keeping us guessing whether he’s really attracted to Caroline or just screwing her to boost his own career.
The action of Poster Boys is punctuated by a series of pop songs played over the theatre’s sound system, and sometimes sung by the cast (the scene in which Caroline and Jack perform “I Got You, Babe” at a karaoke bar, with Caroline taking Sonny’s part and Jack taking Cher’s, is especially precious). Some of the records are by k. d. lang, who’s actually mentioned in the script, while others are genuinely surprising — Eric Carmen’s tacky 1970’s power-pop ballad “All By Myself” becomes the center of one of the play’s most powerful scenes. Sound designer Tom Jones proves effective at D.J.’ing all this music and also supplying effects like the airplane noises that accompany “The Woman”’s appearances. The play takes place on a simple set — or rather a pair of sets, one for Caroline’s office and one for Jack’s and Conrad’s dining room, which the action cuts back and forth between — ably rendered by Matt Scott with aid from “media designer” Luke Olsen’s back-wall projections. Costume designer Jeannie Galioto has outfitted Caroline with convincing simulacra of the designer dresses she boasts of wearing, and David Medina’s props are convincing if not especially challenging.
Poster Boys is a must-see, a typical MOXIE production — a powerful script that takes aim at some of our most cherished stereotypes of sexual orientation (in general artists have been a lot more flexible than the Queer community’s political leaders about how people can change from opposite-sex to same-sex relationships — or, more controversially, the other way around), religious belief, capitalism, personal integrity and authenticity. Riml’s play is expertly realized by director Turner Sonnenberg and an excellent cast and crew, though there’s one irony she probably didn’t intend: on the inside front cover of the program is a paid ad from Wells Fargo Bank with a photo of two men (considerably hotter-looking than John Anderson and Charles Maze!) in the street, leaning into each other in an unmistakable “we’re together” pose, with copy boasting that Wells Fargo has “made significant contributions to LGBT organizations over the past 20 years.” In other words, they’re using the program to sell themselves in the same preposterous ways the play itself so hilariously and devastatingly ridicules!
Poster Boys runs through Sunday, July 31 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. A MOXIE Theatre co-production. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, with special performances Monday, July 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 31 at 7 p.m. For tickets and other information, call (619) 220-0097 or visit www.diversionary.org