REVIEW: HOLLYWOOD AT SUNSET
As both the book and cinematic versions of Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet demonstrated several years back, homosexuality has been evident in the movies since their inception more than a century ago. It has only been recently, however, that Hollywood has dared make movies that honestly depict gay lives and loves, rather than reducing homosexual characters to stereotypes. Robert Patrick, who helped create the off-off-Broadway scene back in the 1960's, and penned what is widely regarded as the first "gay play" (The Haunted Host), has returned to the stage after an extensive hiatus with a tender and funny examination of how Hollywood's depictions of homosexuals influence gay lives. Hollywood at Sunset is a refreshingly intellectual and thought-provoking study of not only two vivid characters, but of the entertainment industry.
The play focuses on Penn and Aron, two aspiring screenwriters/directors and lovers of eight years, who are forced to remain closeted within Hollywood's homophobic hierarchy. As they work to find success in their careers, they must also find a balance in their lives: Penn is afraid of the societal repercussions of coming out, while Aron wants to love and be loved openly. Over their years together, Hollywood produces several big-budget films that deal with gay issues either concretely or abstractly; two such films that feature prominently in Hollywood at Sunset are Philadelphia and Interview with the Vampire. These movies tried to cast a sympathetic light on gay lives, but the basic lesson in these movies goes back to The Children's Hour: hide who you truly are, or die. Many of the conversations revolve around these two films and their destructive themes, and how gay people internalize the messages. These scenes are often fascinating, and quite enlightening for non-cineastes. (I doubt I'll be able to watch either Philadelphia or Interview in the same way again, having heard Patrick's analyses. And I used to love those films, too...)
Unfortunately, the movie debates, while interesting and appropriate to the characters, go on for too long and become somewhat repetitive, as do some of Penn and Aron's romantic arguments. The characters and their issues are established in the first scene, and the repetition does not help bring the characters to any more light. The three-act play could easily be pared down to two acts without losing any of the juiciest meat. To it's great credit, however, Patrick's script demands not only cultural and historical literacy from the audience, but lightening-fast reflexes to follow the many puns and quotes the lovers throw at each other. (It is truly entertaining to try and keep up with the many cultural and cinematic references that fly back and forth throughout the show.) Patrick's dialogue regularly becomes poetry, which is both a blessing and a curse. The very real emotional issues that Aron and Penn discuss are elevated by Patrick's heightened language, but the movie analyses seem almost trivialized when treated the same.
As the dueling lovers, Kevin Held and Graham Fulmer brilliantly capture the alternately campy and dry wit of their characters, as well as the pathos that is never far beneath the humor. Their chemistry is genuine and loving, and from the first moments of the play we know that these people have come to know each other's quirks and foibles and favorite foods like any couple of eight years. Barry Childs' direction is nicely understated, especially in the second act when the characters, talking via telephone, make connections without making eye contact. Michael Muccio's sparse yet functional set works very well in the tiny NativeAlien's Flatiron Playhouse.
For all its repetitions in dialogue and subsequent excessive length, Hollywood at Sunset is a significant and refreshing arrival off-Broadway. Intelligent plays about important social issues may flourish in the tiny theatres rarely visited by tourists, but it is rare to find one so consistently funny and charming. I do hope that Mr. Patrick will not make us wait many years again for his next play.