The flamboyant theater queen who lives to rag on this year’s Tony winners. The average-looking all-around good gay who’s everybody’s best friend and nobody’s boyfriend. The foreign-born charmer living with HIV—though no longer with his (married-her-for-a-green-card) wife. The small-town boy whose move to the big city has meant making gay friends—and a new life he could never have had back home.

We’ve seen these gay men, or gay men like them, on stage before, most notably in the pre-Stonewall world of Mart Crowley’s The Boys In The Band and in the AIDS-crisis world of Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!

Now, young Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins brings these gay archetypes into the 21st Century in his 2011 Jefferson Award-nominated dramedy The Homosexuals, now being given a couldn’t-be-better West Coast Premiere by Celebration Theatre.

1381393_572796666101230_666253428_n Dawkins’ hero is small-town boy turned big-city homo Evan (Brian Dare), whom we meet just as the 30-year-old is about to announce to his decade-and-a-half older boyfriend Peter (Butch Klein) his intention of breaking up, news which Peter (the aforementioned theater queen) greets with a combination of wit, flair, and bitchiness that would do Patti, Chita, or Liza proud.

We learn from this scene about Evan and Peter’s first meeting ten years earlier at “Collin’s party,” a Tony Awards viewing whose guests soon became the then fresh-off-the-bus 20-year-old’s life-sustaining circle of friends. Bits of conversation reveal Peter to be a cancer survivor (and a survivor of asshole ex-boyfriend Mark). As for Evan and Peter’s unlikely romantic relationship, Peter explains its seeming improbability thus: “I had to wait for you to burn through absolutely every other faggot in the blessed world before you even considered dating me.” Peter also reveals his post-breakup interest in dating a certain Michael, whom he describes as “the last remaining homosexual in the district.”

If all these names and relationships seem a lot to digest in a single, opening scene, Dawkins fills in the blanks in the five scenes which follow, each of them introducing a new member of Evan’s circle of friends: British Mark (Ben Patterson), Michael (Kurt Quinn), Tam (understudy Jordana Oberman), Mark (David Frailoli), and Collin (Matt Crabtree).

What sets The Homosexuals apart just about every other play around (and what it shares with Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along) is its going-backwards-in-time structure, as each ensuing scene takes us another two years further into Evan’s past until the play’s final scene—the day of his arrival in the big city at the ripe young age of twenty.

1382801_572796649434565_610643460_n Did playwright Dawkins opt for reverse chronology because he agrees with Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s assertion that “Life can only be understood backwards,” or is it simply that the year 2000 scene provides the perfect coda to The Homosexuals in a way that its inconclusive first scene (and last chronologically) never could?

Whatever the reason, this backwards chronology requires that an audience pay particular attention to the proceedings, an attentiveness to details that will provide considerable payoff as The Homosexuals moves scene by scene toward its beginning/ending.

Dawkins has created a richly three-dimensional group of characters, an all-in-all likeable bunch even if presented warts and all. (Mark’s jaded cynicism had me rooting for Evan to score a knockout punch in their knock-down drag-out, expertly fight-choreographed by Sondra Mayer.) I do wish the playwright had included at least one truly long-term committed relationship, as any right-winger might look at these bed-hopping, boyfriend-swapping homos as undeserving of marriage equality. Then again, Evan is still a mere thirty when we meet/leave him, so there’s still plenty of time for him to find Mr. Right.

1395452_572796646101232_702711021_n I can definitely not quibble with Matthews’ electric direction (he even incorporates choreographed costume/set changes to link scene to scene) or the all-around terrific-to-brilliant performances from his ensemble of seven.

Dare simply could not be more appealing as Evan (whom Matthews makes sure we see as often as possible in his undies), but he is also an utterly natural, unaffected actor, and never better than in the play’s final minutes, which reveal Evan’s as yet unhardened heart. If we don’t love Evan, we won’t want to spend every scene with him. Dare makes us love him.

Klein gives us a Peter every bit as fabulous as Peter would want to see himself portrayed, Fraioli makes us understand why (and how deeply) the AIDS crisis has scarred the cynical Mark, Patterson (though younger and more runway model sculpted than Dawkins describes British Mark) is every bit as smashing as his castmates, and the always outstanding Crabtree makes meeting Collin worth the wait.

536614_10152750787935305_789713594_n 1112010 Best of all among Evan’s friends are Oberman’s Tam and Quinn’s Michael. The former plays Evan’s favorite fag-hag with such vivacity, sass, warmth, and edge that you’d swear she’d been rehearsing with the cast all along instead of getting a single put-in rehearsal. The latter is absolutely mesmerizing as everybody’s best friend, hopelessly smitten since the day he met and introduced Evan to his circle of friends, and in a monolog in which Michael relates a moment of childhood shame and rejection, Quinn gives the kind of electric performance that wins awards.

Not surprisingly (since this is Celebration after all), The Homosexuals is a model of brilliant intimate theater design. Scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s stunning, ever-mutating set, Tim Swiss and Zack Lapinski’s endlessly varied lighting design, Rebecca Kissin’s impeccably detailed sound design, Allison Dillard’s character-defining costumes, and properties designer Michael O’Hara’s multiple, indispensable doodads (including a box of Franzia wine that’s miraculously been de-alcoholized to prevent onstage tipsiness), are as topnotch as they come—and what a joy not to have the infamous pole blocking anyone’s view in Celebration’s spiffy new (albeit temporary) digs in Atwater Village.

Working behind the scenes are Rebecca Eisenberg and Christopher Maikish (assistant directors), Marcedes Clanton (production stage manager), Jillian Mayo (assistant stage manager) Matthew Brian Denman (technical director), and Coco Kleppinger (dialect coach). Casting is by Jami Rudofsky. The Homosexuals is produced by Eisenberg. Jon Klaft, Tracey McAvoy, Christopher Grant Pearson, and Isabella Way are associate producers. Michael C. Kricfalusi, Michael A. Shepperd, and Bruce W. Zisterer are executive producers.

Times have indeed changed since Celebration Theatre’s first season three decades ago, making The Homosexuals the ideal production to open their thirty-first season. With Matthews, cast, and crew at the peak of their talents, The Homosexuals is not only LGBT theater at its best. It is theater at its best. Period.

Celebration Theatre at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village. Through December 21. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 323 957-1884

–Steven Stanley
October 24, 2013
Production stills: Sean Lambert Photography

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