BWW Reviews: DOCTOR ANONYMOUS Looks At The Masks We Wear While Hiding The Truth From Ourselves
New York-based playwright/psychiatrist Guy Fredrick Glass tackles the controversial subject of gay conversion therapy in DOCTOR ANONYMOUS. Its world premiere continues at the Zephyr Theatre through May 4, directed with deep emotional understanding by John Henry Davis.
The play is set in 1972 Philadelphia at the dawn of the nascent Gay Pride movement, against the backdrop of two important historical events: the mayoral campaign of Frank Rizzo, the city's police chief who routinely led Saturday night "round-ups" of homosexuals, and the American Psychiatric Association's 1972 convention. To assist in taking you back, the multimedia projections designed by Troy Hauschild feature scenes from "Laugh In" as well as many early Gay Pride demonstrations.
Although a work of fiction, DOCTOR ANONYMOUS was inspired by a watershed moment in LGBT history when Dr. John E. Fryer, wearing a mask and using a voice-distorting microphone, declared himself a homosexual in front of the 1972 APA convention - leading to the decision to de-list homosexuality as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It took another 40 years for California to become the first state to ban gay conversion therapy in 2012. Today, as other states debate similar measures, and despite the support of the APA, efforts to change sexual orientation continue to be practiced in the U.S. and abroad.
"It's hard for many of us to remember a time when it was not okay for two men to walk down the street holding hands or to express their feelings for one another," says Glass. "Yet it's important to remind people that there's still a faction out there who believe in the environmental aspect, that being gay is a choice."
"It's about having to pretend to be something you're not," adds director John Henry Davis. "Wearing that mask day in and day out, and what that does to you inside."
For those not familiar with gay conversion therapy, the practice was designed to convert gay men and women to be attracted to the opposite sex, thus making their lives more normal and fulfilling. It often included shock therapy linking homosexual thoughts to great physical or emotional pain in an attempt to overcome them.
Matt Crabtree stars as Dr. Matthew Goldstein, a psychiatrist struggling to come to grips with his own sexuality during a time when being openly gay would end his career. Crabtree inhabits the tortured soul of Goldstein as he attempts to change his sexual orientation.
Barry Pearl is Edward, the straight doctor determined to "save" Matthew from himself. As their conversion therapy sessions degenerate into shouting matches, each man learns to respect the other's opinions while agreeing to disagree. But it is Matthew who chooses to wear the mask, hiding who he really is not only from the doctor but from himself and the rest of the world. And like Dr. John E. Fryer, when Matthew finally outs himself in front of his peers, the world moves forward and the mask behind which he has been hiding is finally tossed aside.
Kevin Held plays Jake, the gay rights activist who becomes Matthew's secret lover. Held revels in the role, sharing the joy Jake experiences being in love as well as his deep frustration with Matthew's inability to share their bond with his family or peers. Jake's all-consuming dejection after Matthew's attempt to dissolve their relationship will bring you to tears, thanks to Held's brutally honest portrayal.
Richard Sabine is self-hating gay patient Dudek, the type of bitter gay man most straight people thought could be converted. Sabine shows us the conundrum of Dudek's mindset, hating his gayness yet celebrating its sexuality as often as he can. Surely there is an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, which Sabine allows us to see with his love-hate relationship with himself.
Rounding out the cast are two gay friends of Matthew and Jake: Christopher Frontiero is John, Matthew's opera-loving best friend and fellow psychiatrist, and Jonathan Torres as Andrew, a young gay activist who works with Jake organizing Gay Pride demonstrations. While both characters are over-the-top, each represents what Middle America would have considered to be a typical gay man at the time. John is an effeminate, opera-loving Queen and Andrew is the young, lost soul looking for a macho man to take care of him. Their joy is infectious when John's burst of male physical strength propels Andrew into his arms.
While the subject matter is serious, there are moments of levity to break the tension. Most notably when Matthew and Jake decide to initiate the new office couch and Dudek walks in on them "in flagrante." The look on Sabine's face was priceless as Crabtree and Held scrambled to cover themselves as they burst apart.
Shannon Kennedy's 70s costumes are spot on throughout, but it is Richard Sabine's leathers which deserve the highest praise. While The Village People did not show up until 1977, Sabine certainly channels their energy and sexuality as he struts his assets for all to admire. Set and lighting design by Joel Daavid, accompanied by sound design by Christopher Moscatiello, set the mood from intimate moments to siren-filled demonstrations taking place off stage.
DOCTOR ANONYMOUS continues through May 4 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. General admission is $25; previews are $15. The Zephyr Theatre is located at 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046 (between Fairfax and La Brea). For reservations and information, call (323) 960-7724 or www.plays411.com/doctor. Theatre Planners produces