Saturday, November 19, 2011

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays

The power of this collection of same-sex marriage shorts isn't the words. You won't hear anything you haven't heard before if you've been listening to anyone with anything to say on the subject.

What is transformative is the master class being provided by Harriet Harris. Without the trappings of costume or set or the freedom to storm the stage, she does the hardest and simplest and best that any actor can--she tells the story, honors the words and fills the space between the page and the audience with heart, humor, and humanity. Ms. Harris is the perfect muse for Paul Rudnick's exaggerated reality and goes from zero to hilarious in a glance. If it is true, as many actors will tell you, that comedy is harder than drama, don't point to Harriet Harris as your evidence. Her performance is effortless, which is not to say that she isn't working hard. She is any playwright's or dairy farmer's dream, she milks every moment for what it's worth but offers you nothing but the cream.

Her performance alone is reason to see this reading of 9 playlets. Fortunately, Harriet Harris doesn't stand on ceremony alone. Beth Leavel is one of the most consistent delights working in the theatre today, and she is no less terrific here. Richard Thomas, occasionally slathering the effete on top rather than baking it into the performance, is ultimately heartbreaking and wonderful, brilliantly navigating the traps of an obituary monologue by Moises Kaufman. Mr. Kaufman contributed the most thoughtful and strongest piece of the day with a fairly compelling argument against marriage as the ultimate acknowledgement of commitment, suggesting the life and the love speak louder than any single word.

Mark Consuelos and Craig Bierko are both strong and steady with uneven material. Polly Draper appears to have believed she was, in fact, hired to perform in a reading. Perhaps if her co-stars had gotten the same memo and not delivered fully-formed performances, her brilliance might have come through more consistently; but her online lesbian in Doug Wright's "On Facebook" is a scream, every line. While clumsy in Mo Gaffney's "Traditional Marriage," I have to give her credit for jabbing me in both eyes as she tore through my heart.

Standing on Ceremony won't change your life and won't change your mind about gay marriage. Many of the pieces are overly sweet with a side of trite. Paul Rudnick makes you not care about the content or the concept in either of his two pieces because the form and style are so strong and so him. Neil LaBute's "Strange Fruit" is just too trying--trying too hard to shock, trying too hard to force emotions without taking the time to earn them, and trying my patience for borrowing a bit too much from Torch Song Trilogy. Jordan Harrison, Wendy MacLeod, and Jose Rivera contribute fine but expected points of view.

Unless you are simply in need of an hour and a half of "atta gay," the plays aren't the thing; but with this cast, neither the subject nor the matter are the point. The reason to stand on ceremony, to stand up and celebrate are the players not the plays. All six of these actors have been brilliant before and will be brilliant again, just maybe not on the same stage at the same time. If Standing on Ceremony gets you to consider only one commitment, make it not missing these performers.

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