Atlanta Theatre Buzz Review: Angry Fags

 In Press

Read the full review by Brad Rudy below, or follow this link. 

3/28/2019        ANGRY FAGS   7 Stages   ( A+ ) 

 INELUCTABLE MODALITIES

(Bias Alert — I am friends with playwright Topher Payne, have worked with him in the past and will again in the near future.  Which is to say, I’ve come to view his work through approval-tinted glasses.)

(For the record, the 3/28 performance was the first preview, and not the “official” opening.  IMHO, it was (almost) “Ready for Prime Time,” a few (minor) pacing issues notwithstanding.)

(Considering the above, you REALLY should read the following with a grain of naturally-harvested sea salt.)

This is a play about anger.  About politics.  About taking a stand.  About the slippery slope that connects them all to acts of terrorism.

This is a play about the subtle seduction of evil.

This is a comedy about finding love and holding onto friendships.

This is a thriller about toxic friendships and extremism and de-humanizing the “other” and hypocrisy and political expediency and the social ethos we all have to navigate as if sliding barefoot along the business side of a razor blade.

This is an Atlanta play, set in Atlanta, focusing on Atlanta politics, and making Atlanta itself an uncredited character.

It is, quite simply, one of the best plays of this or any year, being given an almost perfect production at 7 Stages.

So, what do I mean by “ineluctable modalities?”  The English majors amongst you will recognize that as a phrase from the opening paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and literary scholars have repeatedly used high-falugtin’ allusions to Aristotle, to (vaguely) define it, using phrases like “unavoidable methods” or “unimpeachable aspects” or really pretty much whatever any particular scholar wants to write about.  Just like pretty much all of Ulysses.

I focus this essay on that phrase because Topher Payne’s Angry Fags seems (at least to me) to be about many aspects of relationships and politics and, yes, terrorism, that are fashioned as unavoidable, as inevitable, as slippery-slope collision-course inescapable.

You can get elected by espousing ideals and activism, but inevitably, you have to avoid “doing the right thing” if you want to be re-elected.

You can justify an act of violence by appealing to a “sense of justice,” but, inevitably, the “personal justice” becomes “tribal justice” becomes “collateral damage.”

You can appeal to the electorate’s better nature in advocating societal change, but, inevitably, it takes violence to truly effect that change.

And, as a somewhat whimsical meta-observation, you can re-write an already excellent script to accommodate changes in the political landscape, but inevitably, the political landscape is ever-changing, and the last few weeks have already made one exchange of dialog somewhat moot. (*)  

Angry Fags first came to life in 2013, ostensibly a reaction to the evangelical “War Against LGBT Rights.”  Since then, a new election and a more divided electorate have made politics a blood sport of Us vs Them, and actual issues are being ignored, or, at best, drowned out by the loudness of the invective.  This new version isn’t that radical a rewrite — a detective character has been replaced by a television reporter (which very nicely indicts the media itself in furthering the national divide) and a few references to the current president (and his 2016 opponent) have been added, but, it’s still very much the same play, with all the layers and depths of the original.

So, what’s it all about?  Bennett and Cooper are best friends, gay men sharing an apartment (but not a bed).  Bennett is a speech-writer for Allison Haines, a Georgia State Senator representing an Atlanta District, running for a second term against Peggy Musgrove, an African-American (Female) Republican Evangelical challenger.  Allison is (or was) a champion of LGBT rights, being a lesbian wife and mother, but the realities of her opponent have forced her to “tone down” her rhetoric and attempt a more broad-based appeal.  

When Bennett’s ex-lover is brutalized in an apparent hate crime, Ms. Musgrove takes a more compassionate approach, leaving the Haines team scrambling in defense.  This sends Bennett into an existential tizzy.  To say more would, in effect, spoil too many of the well-plotted twists and turns of the story.  Suffice it to say, we know from Scene One that Cooper and Bennett will eventually blow up a building, but getting to the “why” is one of the many pleasures of this story.

There are so many wonderful layers to this story, chief among them being the disconnect between how it views the characters and their politics.  Peggy Musgrove, in particular, is painted as a very appealing person, despite the politics that will no doubt alienate her from (what I assume is) this play’s target audience.  Conversely, Allison Haines has all the qualifications of an appealing candidate, but is painted as an opportunistic hypocrite and “Horrible Boss.”  When we first meet Bennett and Cooper, they are charming, funny, and worthy of a Romantic Comedy pedestal.  But they do horrible things, first to those who hurt them, then to those who oppose them, and ultimately (ineluctably, if you will) to those who love them.  And the ultimate act, which should come as no surprise, is realized by the one you least expect.

In making his main characters so appealing, Mr. Payne subtly indicts us as co-conspirators.  We cheer them on in their quest for revenge, we empathize in their quest for justice, and we silently nod our heads in “what else could they do” as the cycle of evil swallows {Name Deleted by the Spoiler Police}.  Wait a minute!  They did what to whom!!!??

Through it all, there are so many laugh-out-loud funny moments and lines and interactions that we sometimes find ourselves laughing incongruously, nervously, and not without a modicum of shame.

On the perfectly-realized technical side, the set by the always-dependable Kat Conley is a glorious structure, many platforms surrounding Bennett and Conner’s living room, so we quickly zoom from office to park to steam house to dais to police station and beyond.  Projections (by Maranda DeBusk) show news clips and abstract shapes and television excerpts to help in transitions and expositions.  The lighting (by Katherine Keslund) is pinpoint precise and completely synched with the sound (by Dan Bauman) (especially evident in the Scene One explosion and the final scene’s {Deleted by the spoiler police}. I especially enjoyed the rainbow-arrayed down lights which highlighted the pre-show setting.

The cast, led by Gregory Hernandez (Bennett) and Cody Russell (Cooper) is superb,  I really liked how Mr. Russell wallowed in all those gay stereotypes we straight folk find amusing, even as his toxic blindness blind-sides us.  As the candidates, Gina Rickicki (Haines) and Parris Sarter (Musgrove) are a study in contrasts — play close attention to their one scene together, smothered in the syrupy platitudes of “combatants sharing a friendly moment” but driven by a fiercely visible “this bee-yatch is going down” subtext.  In other roles, Kelly Criss is letter-perfect as Kimberly Phillips, Bennett’s friend and co-worker, as is Brandon Patrick as Adam Lowell, a hunky co-worker Bennett “crushes on” and eventually wins.  And Carolyn Cook is creepily effective as Diedre Preston, the “Fox-News-esque” reporter who seems to have the pulse of the election at her fingertips.  When she and another character exchange contact information near the end, her “I’ve got your number,” was perfectly delivered, conveying knowledge and menace in one moment that literally made me shudder.

Kate MacQueen and Ibi Owolabi are given credit as directors, and, if so, they are to be commended.  This is a very long show (it has to be be given the huge tracts of thematic and expositional land it has to cover), but its pace NEVER lags, and I actually was surprised when I saw the time afterwards.

But the true star here is Topher Payne’s script.  Already a winner of the Gene-Gabriel Moore playwrighting award, it is filled to the brim with incident and dialogue that zigs and zags, zooms and settles.  Mr. Payne uses words like a composer, making syntax and rhythm an integral part of character, wit and anger an essential aspect of narrative drive.  I know he has a lot of “axes to grind” in the political sphere, and I marvel that he indulges in that here without “stacking the deck.”  It’s as if he actually listens when hearing points of view antithetical to his own.  Which, in the final analysis, may be the true message here, that “ineluctable modality” we take home with us.

Seeing any of Topher Payne’s plays is a guarantee of a compelling (and over-too-soon) experience, a sadly transient brush with excellence.   I actually envy anyone discovering his work for the first time.

     — Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #7Stages  #AngryFags)

.*   ADAM    I told you I wannabe just like Jed Bartlett from West Wing, only super gay.

BENNETT    You want to be the first gay President?

ADAM    I don’t care if I’m first. Nah, that’s a lie, I wannabe first. Why are you looking at me like that? You don’t think a gay guy could get elected President?

BENNETT     I mean, eventually. Like, generations from now. 

News From March 28, 2019 

Okay, this dialogue still works because, the odds of Mayor Pete winning are a bit less than optimal, but, not as impossible as Bennett seems to think.   But, I think y’all get my point about trying to “keep up” with timely politics is Sisyphean at best.

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