BWW Review: DARE at Desert Rose Playhouse
"Message Plays" are a difficult breed. When they hammer you with their themes, they are more painful than an over-long sermon on a hot Sunday morning. However, when they click, as Desert Rose's production of Dare does on all cylinders, they deliver one of the highest functions of theatre: entertainment that educates. An outstanding company of actors, under the direction of Jim Strait, bring Texas playwright Allan Baker's new script to life, and our "lessons" are eagerly lapped up!
The story deals with 82-year-old Jack (Richard Marlow) who has recently been moved into a nursing home in Central California. Being an out gay man, he is scorned by the orderly in charge of his care (Robbie Wayne). Fortunately, a young gay doctor (Matthew Hocutt) comes into the room to interview Jack and find out why he is refusing to eat. Jack starts to tell the doctor some of the key moments in his full life as a gay activist, and the doctor settles in as an eager listener. Flashback scenes set in San Francisco 1973, Fire Island 1978, Greenwich Village 1987 and New York City 1990 are acted out on the edges of the stage by Terry Huber as Younger Jack and Noah Arce as Jack's longtime love, David.
The performances are all strong. Top marks go to Richard Marlow who, as octogenarian Jack, never leaves the stage for the 100-minute running time of the play (there is no intermission). After the show, I heard audience members asking each other, "How did he memorize all those lines?" to which I add, "How did he keep all those lines real, relevant, and entertaining as this amazing actor did?" We certainly leave the theatre with the feeling that we have met a new friend whom we know a lot about. Matthew Hocutt's young doctor, Josh, is an excellent counterpoint. Over half the play is comprised of these two men sitting on chairs center stage, talking to each other. My theatre background kept telling me that they needed to get up and move around (well, the doctor at least - old Jack is basically immobile), but the time or two that the doctor got up for rather gratuitous moves, they almost distracted rather than offered relief from the fixed positions. The intimacy of the Desert Rose Playhouse allows us to have close-up views of both men's faces, and we can see the developing degrees of their friendship and trust as their dialogue goes on. They are able to deliver an almost filmic level of subtlety which allows the audience to relate even more closely to them.
The flashback scenes are delivered to the extreme left and right sides of the stage (and even upstage at one point!), and are colorful and mobile, in sharp juxtaposition to the two chairs in the static white room of the hospital. Huber as the older, more conservative partner, is trying to retain a straight image 8 hours per day at the office, and then letting himself be somewhat out in the evenings and weekends. Arce, himself a lanky and good looking teenager, is constantly trying to urge his partner to loosen up. His clothes and movements convey his joy of living, especially in a gay world. Interesting side note: like Timothee Chalamet, Mr. Arce is a straight man kicking major butt in his portrayal of a gay character, and that is absolutely all right. Gay actors have certainly played straight characters for untold centuries, so turn-about is fair play!
It's interesting that this production immediately follows Desert Rose's excellent production of Suddenly, Last Summer, in that Baker's script certainly has a healthy does of poetry about it, as Williams' script does. Also, both scripts have incredibly long speeches to be memorized and delivered by actors of a certain age!
Allan Baker's script recently was named one of the two winners of the 2017 Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Political Play Contest, sponsored by the Castillo Theatre in New York City. The selection committee praised the way the script weaves together the history of gay liberation, the enduring threat of homophobia, the impact of AIDS, aging in the gay community, end of life issues, the argument between advocates of gay "assimilation" and gay "exceptionalism"...and the vital role of drag queens. And it manages to do all this with the requisite spoon full of sugar!
Jim Strait's set is functional, Phil Murphy's lighting helps in the transition from the sterility of the hospital room to the inviting warmth of the flashback scenes, and Steve Fisher's stage management is always bankable.
Dare plays for three more weekends, through May 13, at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets and further information are available at www.DesertRosePlayhouse.org.
Keep an eye out for their "Hot Summer Nights" production of Women Behind Bars, a campy, rowdy visit to the tawdry prison dame B-movies of the 50's. It opens on June 22.