Gay plays are tough to get right. Once watershed events, the New York theater scene now often feels bloated by gay-themed plays that rarely chart new ground. Vital Theatre Company's new play Cedarwood Avenue, a less-than-satisfying two-act comedy by Mike Teele that examines family relationships and gay identity, is the latest addition to this theatrical genre. Teele's work, at least in its first act, aims to stir things up by comically portraying something that is rarely seen on stage: the "coming out" process of parents who have just learned that their son is gay. Unfortunately, the results are mixed.
Such a premise has potential, and indeed, act one of Cedarwood Avenue has moments that are quite funny. The son (Brian Munn) has hidden his homosexuality from his parents for almost nine years and when he comes out to them, they are quite excited to learn all they can about gay life. Mother (Ellen Barry) and Father (an often hysterically funny Robert Sonderskov) become the ideal supportive parents. They read self-help books about gay children and take over the New Hampshire chapter of PFLAG where they live. The Son gets upset, though, when his parents become too hands on and not only insist that he take them to a gay bar, but they also become more vocal about gay pride than he does.
Yet for all the funny situations that ensue (the father unwittingly gets involved with "leather daddies" and the mother plays matchmaker for her son), ultimately the first act feels more like a series of extended skits and sketches than a developed work. Like any well-wrought play, a central conflict is needed and Teele has omitted giving us one. Thus, despite the attempt to take gay theater in a new direction, Cedarwood Avenue, more often than not, feels predictable and tame. Teele gives us wild and kooky middle-aged parents who occasionally like to get high on pot and have sex in public, but how outrageous is this? Stephen Sondheim had middle-aged "square" couples doing pot thirty years ago in Company and simply put, Teele's play needs something that's more scandalous than "reefer madness."
The play undergoes a radical shift in direction in act two when its tone and style change dramatically. Gone are Mother and Father and now we meet Sister (Stacy Melich), Brother's older, sexually promiscuous sibling. Unlike the ribald comedy of act one, the play's second half is much more somber and heartfelt as the play deals with Brother's coming to terms with his sexuality and Sister's battle with cancer. Despite such potentially monumental events, act two is also frustratingly devoid of conflict. Sure, Brother and Sister squabble a bit, but they're always there for each other. Sister knows of Brother's gay identity from an early age and accepts it right away. So where's the dramatic friction to maintain audience interest?
Given the lack of conflict, only Stacy Melich as Sister makes this part of the play worth watching. Her portrayal of the cancer-stricken sister who's had bad luck with abortions and marriage is touching and refreshingly three-dimensional in a play in which the other characters are cardboard cut-outs. Bringing to the play a badly needed sense of pathos, one almost wishes that her character were the central protagonist instead of her dull, wishy-washy brother, who is not a particularly compelling figure either as written by Teele or as portrayed by Brian Munn.
Sue Lawless's direction, in a play without much impetus to drive it on, gives the work the appearance that real issues are at stake. Perhaps in Paul Rudnick's or Neil LaBute's hands, the issues of gay identity and complex family relationships would have registered more profoundly, either with outrageous hilarity or abject anguish, but Teele's style of writing, despite the occasionally funny skit, amounts to a fairly dull play.
Vital Theatre Company