With all due respect to the Declaration of Independence, all men may be created equal, but they can certainly travel different paths once they’re old enough to shave. A visit to New York City theaters this spring highlighted a wide range in male sexuality and behavior, from misguided machismo to flat-out gender bending. Still, if the shows I caught have one thing in common, it’s that, whatever the occupation, location or sexual persuasion, guys really like to show off.
Take the new revival of La Cage aux Folles (Broadway’s Longacre Theatre), Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s modern classic about a middle-aged gay couple—one the relatively butch owner of a drag nightclub, the other his queenly longtime companion and diva-ish star. In their hermetic world of cross-dressers, wildly effeminate butlers and louche décor, Georges and Zaza live openly and with almost giddy zest. Only when Georges’ son (via a one-night stand) begs them to play straight for the sake of his fiancee’s parents are we reminded that the couple can still be branded as social outcasts. This is, of course, Zaza’s cue to defend his lifestyle with that ever-stirring anthem of independence, “I Am What I Am.” It’s a great show-off moment for actor Douglas Hodge, though his low-key, fast-talking performance held me at arm’s length much of the evening. Kelsey Grammer’s an ideal Georges, however; and this revival, though small in scale, proves big in charm and spirit.
At the opposite end of the gay spectrum were the men of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization formed on the West Coast two decades before Stonewall rocked the eastern landscape. These “temperamental” men, for whom even touching fingertips in public was a brave political act, took the first steps out of the closet by challenging prevailing laws and organizing across the country. No tranny wigs and gowns here, though the organization’s leader did begin wearing his mother’s shawl as a kind of banner. Jon Marans’ off-Broadway drama about the Mattachines, The Temperamentals (which, as of this writing, is scheduled to close May 30 at off-Broadway’s New World Stages), may suffer from the usual “and-then-they” pace of docudramas, but there are worse ways to get a history lesson.
The same could be said for Fela!, a dazzling musicalization of the life of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti. With choreography by Tony winner Bill T. Jones, the show nearly tears the roof off the Eugene O’Neill Theatre when the subject’s complex, AfroBeat rhythms come rushing through the air. Filled with equal parts self-confidence and self-righteousness, Fela attacks the government in song. As the dictatorship strikes back in increasingly ugly ways, the singer must decide whether it’s worth risking everything to remain in his homeland. Too long by a good thirty minutes (why they didn’t excise the second-act dream sequence involving Fela’s mom is beyond me), Fela! nevertheless holds you with its propulsive music and knockout lead performance (be it Tony nominated Sahr Ngaujah or the dynamic actor I saw in the matinee, the tush-wiggling, spliff-smoking, sax-blowing, Kevin Mambo).
Speaking of men who appeal to the ladies, be prepared to hear “oohs” and “yeahs” when Denzel Washington takes the stage in the fine new Broadway revival of Fences—even though the Tony-nominated actor is dressing down and aging up to play Troy Maxson, a Negro Leaguer-turned-garbage man who makes such a burden of family obligations, he hurts the very people he should be loving. Those who question whether August Wilson was the most extraordinary writer of theatrical dialogue in the late 20th Century need look no further than the colloquialisms and cadences of this masterwork, now playing at the Cort Theatre.
Words, however, are barely even used in the last show I’ll mention, 666, a pitch-dark clown play about four prisoners on death row. Sometimes shocking for shock’s sake (a shaving sequence that recalls Monty Python’s funnier reluctant-barber bit) and sometimes a real hoot (a choreographed dream ballet in which an inmate kills everything in his path in spectacular slow motion), 666 tries to pull laughs out of rape, sodomy, bestiality, murder, maiming, masturbation, electrocution and hanging. The piece, which musters a batting average of roughly .666, concludes with all the performers climbing over the Minetta Lane Theatre audience while wearing enormous fake phalli. Though I’m uncredited in the program, I’m quite proud that they designed the molds using my—well, modesty forbids.