part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
The title: Hanky Panky. The pre-show music: 1920s and 30s standards, including “My Mammy,” “Swanee,” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” The central set piece: a bed. If ever a show were setting itself up to be a raucous, newfangled sex farce, it’s this one at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. What you get instead are the estranged members of the Gunther family gathering around the sickbed of their father in the last 90 minutes of his life, during which time they try to work out the demons and disagreements that have divided them for decades. Hold onto your funny bone!
The most concrete problem with Vicki Vodrey’s play, which has been skillfully directed by Richard Hines, is that it sets up expectations it has no intention of delivering. For a work in which death is so prominent, it achieves a startling number of laughs, along with the expected tears. But even with incredibly detailed characters, smart structuring, and fantastic performances from almost everyone in the 10-person company, this is a play that is always fighting against itself. By the final scene, which strives to be searing and slapstick but ends up as neither, you can’t tell for sure whether it’s won or lost.
Getting to that point, however, is neither trivial nor a trial, and Vodrey gets much mileage from investigating how everyone deals with death. Joe (Rusty Sneary), gay and HIV positive, wants back in the family without changing his wanton ways. His brothers, Ed and Mike (Craig Benton and Herman Johansen), don’t see eye to eye on anything, and are married to women (Jennifer Mays and Cynthia Hyer, respectively) who don’t mesh well with the family’s constant caustic outbursts. The men’s sister, Lorraine (Peggy Friesen), is determined that her father’s final exit will be a godly one. Two members of the hospital staff, Shelly and Abigail (Diane Bulan and Christina Parke), experience this all the time; the only religious official on hand is the non-denominational Reverend Kirby (Evan White), who’s never before presided over a Catholic death.
In terms of its character layout, and its arguments and their underlying feelings, the play resembles a lighter-hearted cancer-ward version of August: Osage County. (Not entirely inappropriate, as this was apparently the hit of last year’s Kansas City Fringe Festival.) Vodrey spikes the dialogue with anger and heart in equal measure, keeping you guessing until the very end whether the Gunthers will work out all their difficulties. With the exceptions of Hyer and White, who are a bit shaky in their characterizations, the actors all tinge ground-level with grief with hope and camaraderie that will be movingly familiar to anyone who’s ever bonded with loved ones in a hospital.
But because of a mechanical, manufactured twist that sends unnecessary tremors of plot down the family’s religious convictions, and a comic scene surrounding the Last Rites that Abbott and Costello would have considered over the top, it’s hard to take Hanky Panky as seriously as it thinks it deserves. For all about it that's good, it ultimately stumbles because it's more interested in making you laugh then cry than it is letting you do both at the same time.
As the recent Broadway revival of The Normal Heart proved, AIDS plays can still pack a punch even though the disease is now a greatly reduced threat. But one ingredient is key to landing an emotional uppercut: humanity. And that’s what’s almost entirely missing from Robert Chionis’s well-intended but cringeworthy one-man musical about gay New York in the 1980s, Surviving Love.
The story is a typical one. A young gay may moves to Manhattan in the late 1970s to expand his education and his horizons; falls in love and then into a relationship with an up-and-coming photographer; and then, after a decade's long supposedly monogamous relationship, loses him to AIDS, which he also contracts. Fed up with America’s attitudes, he moves to the more accepting Germany, where he lives happily ever after.
But lacking characters, conflict, and cleverness, Chionis's telling is so oppressively generic that it comes across as cold, cynical, and borderline heartless. He claims his character (“The Boy”) grew up in a Midwest town called Nowhere, full of only churches that sustained your spirit until you were old enough to drink at bars. His lover (“The Artist”) rarely, if ever, speaks, and we learn nothing about him beyond his ambition and his frequent dizzy spells. The only contrasting voice comes from the pianist (Timothy Long) who participates in uneasy badinage with Chionis and states neon-obvious morality music with a disconnected intensity that's downright creepy.
Chionis himself is not much better. He cuts an off-putting, almost ghoulish, stage presence — imagine Liza Minnelli cast as Macheath in The Threepenny Opera — and his singing voice, though obviously trained, is ragged and uneasy, and more likely to shove rather than glide its way through songs. As for the musical numbers, the collection is contemporary but schizophrenic, comprising existing contributions from talents as diverse as Brian Lasser, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, William Finn, and Steven Sater–Duncan Sheik, the latter three represented by the most unwieldy choices of the evening: “I Love to Spell,” when The Boy is discovering his high-school intellectualism, and “Totally Fucked,” which finds him writhing around a pile of boxes during a hilariously overwrought AIDS episode.
With such an impenetrable star, this 90-minute outing rapidly becomes endless, and it's bleak and anti-American enough to make The Normal Heart look like The Producers. That the show premiered in Germany, where Chionis still lives, may partially account for its aggressive and pro-European tone, but not for its tendency to treat a drama about finding and holding on to love (even after death) as if it were a zombie invasion. If Chionis’s story is indeed about him, he deserves plaudits for being so open about the difficult life he’s led and surmounted. But he and his plight would elicit much more sympathy if Surviving Love didn’t seem like such an endurance test for both him and for us.