Terrence McNally seems to have intended his new play Some Men as a grand statement about gay life in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet it covers the years 1925 to 2005 and ends up saying very little about how far we've all come. Much of Some Men is very enjoyable; it's full of winning performances, and some of the scenes are funny and thoughtful. Yet those pleasing moments are few and far between, and in the end Some Men is disjointed and dispiriting, working against its own best intentions.
McNally has said that he aims Some Men to be a plea for tolerance and an endorsement of gay marriage, yet it's hard to imagine any opponent of gay marriage being swayed by this play. Some Men has dozens of characters, and they fit nearly every gay stereotype - the hustler, the drag queen, the bitchy alcoholic, the couple with the violent love/hate relationship, the men who obsess over Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, the men who dance to disco music in bath towels and judge their own bodies too harshly - they're here, they're queer, get used to it. (Yes, McNally even resorts to that famous line, as if admitting he has nothing new to say.) Why anyone would want to perpetuate these trite cartoons, let alone think them endearing or clever in this day and age, is one of the many questions that Some Men never answers.
What's most maddening about Some Men is its episodic structure. The play consists of thirteen scenes, each lasting five to fifteen minutes, each set in a different year. Just when the characters start to get interesting, McNally switches us to another scene in another era with other characters. Without characters to care about, we dash through the decades from one uninvolving scene to the next. We get a scene with men pouring their hearts out at a group therapy session; we get a scene with two gay dads trying to prove that they're just normal, loving parents; we get scenes of random, anonymous sex in a 1970s bathhouse; we get a scene about an AIDS patient whose friends gather around to watch him die. None of these scenes tells us anything new, and none gives us characters we haven't seen before in better dramas. Worst of all, there's a deadly "comic relief" scene set in an Internet chat room, where the big joke is that the guy using the screen name "Buffed in Chelsea" is actually fat, gray-haired and bald. Not much insight or invention there - or anywhere in this play.
Still, this is a Terrence McNally play, which means there are excellent touches throughout. McNally can write heartbreaking scenes and funny ones, and there are examples of both in Some Men. If you want heartbreak, there's Suzzanne Douglas as the mother of a soldier killed overseas (presumably in the Iraq war), praying to God to "relieve me of the smallness of heart" that prevents her from fully acknowledging the truth of her son's life. If you want funny, there's a scene with show queens discussing the finer points of The Pajama Game and House of Flowers. (One character says that he wishes the film version of Gypsy had starred Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe - "Between the two of them, I bet you'd have at least five minutes of usable footage.")
Occasionally there's a scene that is both tender and funny, such as the one with John Glover and Don Amendolia as an older couple having to put up with inane questions from a couple of pretentious but clueless college students majoring in Gender Studies ("How gay was it in those days?" "It was pretty gay."). There are also some excellent dramatic scenes involving Bernie, a married man slowly coming to terms with his sexuality. Stephen Bogardus gives a gripping performance as the tortured Bernie, and Barbara Walsh has a superb fiery scene as the wife he leaves behind. But the segments about Bernie are interspersed with vignettes about gay life in the 1920s and '30s which are a complete waste of time.
Then there's the clichéd use of music meant to sum up the gay experience - everything from "Over the Rainbow" to "Like A Virgin" to, God help me, "It's Raining Men." In the program, director Philip Himberg takes credit for most of the musical ideas, yet some of his hackneyed choices got laughter from the crowd that was probably unintended.
Still, Himberg deserves praise for his sensitive touch in the dramatic scenes. The cast is excellent; in addition to the actors already mentioned, Brandon Bales gives a nice touch to a few poignant moments, and Malcolm Gets brings his pleasant, everyman quality to a number of roles (even though there's not much variety in his characterizations). And Glover has a very funny turn as the world's most unlikely female impersonator.
Still, a great actor like John Glover deserves more than just a few snappy one-liners. There's not enough for him, or the rest of the skilled cast, to dig into. Some Men sacrifices depth for breadth; its patchwork structure, stale characters and stock situations end up distancing the viewer from the causes the playwright has embraced.
He may be campaigning for greater tolerance for the gay community, but with Some Men, Terrence McNally has done his cause more harm than good.
Some Men runs through Sunday, June 11 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $31 to $49, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com/, or by visiting the box office.