With a title like F*cking Men and the promise of full frontal male nudity, the latest Celebration Theatre production will have no problem attracting audiences. Joe DiPietro’s modern gay twist on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1900 classic La Ronde has been filling seats in London for the past two years and counting. What WeHo theatergoers will be getting, however, is much more than merely a sexually explicit title and some briefly viewed private parts. DiPietro’s play, particularly as directed here by the justly admired Calvin Remsberg, is a witty, perceptive, absolutely engrossing look at gay relationships, both sexual and romantic. F*cking Men says much about the way gay men meet and mate, but audiences of either sex or any sexual orientation are likely to recognize themselves in at least one of DiPietro’s diverse cast of characters.

F*cking Men is not the first time that La Ronde has been adapted for the stage. David Hare’s The Blue Room played the Pasadena Playhouse in 2002. Michael John LaChiusa rewrote La Ronde as the musical Hello, Again, reviewed here this past year as was a production of La Ronde itself. Both Hare and LaChiusa have followed Schnidler’s original format, and DiPietro does likewise. Two people meet and have (offstage) sex, then talk about it. One of the two then goes on to meet someone new, who then couples with someone else, and so on, until the circle (La Ronde) is completed by the last of ten characters meeting the very first.

In modernizing (and homosexualizing) La Ronde, DiPietro has turned Schnitzler’s prostitute into an escort, his young gentleman into a college kid, and his poet into a playwright. The actress has become an actor, of course, and the husband and wife have become a same-sex married couple. DiPietro’s alterations are not simply in gender or job description, however. In setting F*cking Men in a gay universe, the playwright is able to comment on monogamy, HIV, gays in the military, the Hollywood closet, so-called “straight” men on the down-low, and other hot-button topics as well.

DiPietro’s adaptation differs from Schnitzler’s original, and from other stage or film adaptations I’ve seen, in one other significant way. In La Ronde, once a character’s two rides on the sexual merry-go-round are over, that’s the last we see or hear from him/her. What makes F*cking Men unique, and particularly involving, are the story arcs DiPietro gives to a number of the characters, allowing us to follow their lives even after their scenes are over.

Each scene has its own particular sparkle, its own particular energy, beginning with the very first meeting. A young escort (Brian Dare) is cruised by a soldier (Johnny Kostrey) who’s heard from an army buddy that said sex worker is particularly adept at s*cking c*ck. Soldier assures escort (repeatedly) that he’s not gay, but as we all know, “denial” is not just a river in Egypt. The soldier then meets a graduate student (Mike Ciriaco) in a sauna, and even though he’s still “not gay,” he’s obviously a lot less “straight” than before. Grad student then arrives at the suburban home of a bisexual (or so he steadfastly maintains) college kid (Michael Rachlis) for a tutoring session that turns into something quite different. College student then hooks up with a married guy (Sean Galuszka) in an open relationship. The married guy then attempts to prove to his husband (David Pevsner) that the sexual spark in their eleven-year relationship can still ignite, at least once in a rare while. Husband # 2 then hooks up with a porn star (Jeff Olson), whose particular brand of fame is an especially powerful aphrodisiac to the middle-aged married man. The porn star then couples with a playwright (AJ Tannen) who’s even more excited than the married guy was about his unbelievable luck in f*cking an honest-to-goodness-or-badness porn star no less! A broom closet provides the setting for the next tryst, between the playwright and an A-list Hollywood movie star (Chad Borden), the kind you hear rumors about. The movie star then has a meeting (the only non-sexual one in the play) with a famed TV and print journalist (Gregory Franklin). Finally, the journalist hires the escort of the first scene for an evening that turns out to be about much more than just sex.

DiPietro has written the books for two musicals about male-female relationships—I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and The Thing About Men. Here, in non-musical theater mode, he proves himself equally perceptive (and funny) in writing about relationships between men. When the grad student asks the horny college kid if he doesn’t know what “no” means, the kid shoots back, “I’m not a GIRL!” Later, when the college kid is attempting to seduce the older married man, he tells the daddy type that he’d better take advantage of his good luck now, while he’s still only old enough to be the kid’s father. Wait a few years and he’ll be the age of his grandfather, and by then his sex life will have long since expired.

F*cking Men is about a lot more than comedy, however. The soldier’s denial seems to be an inevitable part of the coming out process of many a gay man. The grad student’s ultimately doomed efforts to avoid cheating on his boyfriend illustrate the challenges gays may face when attempting monogamy. The horny college student’s self-declared bisexuality may reflect yet another stage in a gay man’s journey to self-awareness. When the college kid tells his older married trick he’d better act now before it’s too late, it’s a perceptive comment on the importance of youth in the gay community. In the married couple’s agreed-upon open relationship we see (as is often the case) one partner more committed to “openness” than the other, less eagerly non-monogamous one. Husband # 2’s hook-up with the porn star of his dreams reveals secrets and lies in his supposedly honest marital relationship. The playwright’s delight in f*cking a porn star mirrors the celebrity status many in the gay community assign to XXX performers. The movie star’s much publicized marriage to his (female) high school sweetheart is a spot-on reflection of the Hollywood closet, as is his meeting with the celebrity journalist. Finally, the journalist’s meeting with the young escort examines the power of cash—in a quite unexpected way.

Under Remsberg’s superb direction, the entire Celebration cast give all round terrific performances, beginning with Dare, so memorable last year in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist at a Noise Within. The engaging young actor conveys an innate sweetness that escort John’s street-smartness has not been able to destroy, and it is hard to imagine the play’s final scene being quite as touching without Dare in the role. As soldier Steve, Kostrey is a real find, totally convincing both as a military grunt and as a man gradually becoming aware of exactly who he is. (In denial mode, he’s hilarious to boot.) Ciriaco too makes a striking Celebration debut as sexy grad student Marco torn between his desire for monogamy and his testosterone-filled young body. Rachlis is batting four for four (after standout work in O Jerusalem, Resignation Day, and Equus) in his charismatic, funny performance here as horny, uninhibited college kid Kyle. Galuska gives the evening’s most poignant performance as Leo, whose marriage to Jack seems to have brought him as much grief and frustration as it has joy (though for Galuska to have taught high school for fifteen years, he would seem to have started there as a teenager). The dynamic Pevsner, whose contributions to Corpus Christi have helped make it a three-years-and-counting international sensation, is perfectly cast as arguably the play’s most complex character, a married man who is both a serial cheater and an (emotionally at least) devoted spouse. Blond bombshell Olson so looks the part of porn star Ryan with his combination of all-American good looks and Gay Games gold medalist bodybuilder’s physique that the acting chops (and honest-to-goodness innocence) he brings to the role come as a delightful surprise. Tannen gets so many laughs as the deliciously full-of-himself playwright Sammy that one can easily imagine a F*cking Men cable TV spinoff entitled F*cking Sammy. Longtime L.A. theater favorite Borden has never been better than he is here as movie star Brandon, the cocky action hero about as far a cry from Kiss Of The Spiderwoman’s flamboyant Molina as can be imagined. Finally, silver fox Franklin makes journalist Donald a far different (and more multi-layered) man that we might have initially imagined, and his final gesture is so selfless and generous that it brings F*cking Men to an unexpectedly heartwarming and optimistic conclusion.

As for the show’s look, I’d be surprised if the London production’s set comes close to scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s marvelously mobile creation at the Celebration. The play opens strikingly as cast members enter one by one, positioning themselves in what looks like a multi-chambered revolving door. These and other appropriately circular modules are then moved in arcs about the stage to transform it from park bench to suburban kitchen to college dorm room to broom closet. Sound designer Lindsay Jones underscores the show with a jazzy 60s blend of tunes, beginning with a cleverly picked “The Windows Of Your Mind.” (“Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel. Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel.”) Daavid Hawkins’ costumes and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting complete the superb production design.

Some may say that F*cking Men presents a too-negative picture of the gay community at a time when we are fighting for marriage equality, yet DiPietro’s take on same-sex relationships differs hardly at all from Schnitzler’s original. If Leo and Jack’s marriage is a non-monogamous one, then so was the marriage between La Ronde’s young wife and her philandering husband, each of whom had his or her own dalliances in 1900 Vienna. Ultimately, F*cking Men is about much more than just men f*cking, and at play’s end, we are left, like John, the escort who started it all, with unexpected tears in our eyes and more than a bit of hope in our heart.

F*cking Men is something very special indeed. I can’t wait to see it again.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd.,Hollywood.

—Steven Stanley
September 11, 2009
                                                                       Photos: Michael Lamont

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