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Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Harriet Harris, Beth Leavel, Mark Consuelos, Craig Bierko, Polly Draper, and Richard Thomas.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If there's anything surprising about Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, the anthology evening that just opened at the Minetta Lane, it's that it took so long to arrive. After the Marriage Equality Law was passed in June and went into effect in July, it seemed highly likely that the New York victory lap would occur in weeks rather than months. That's theatrical economics for you. But theatrical necessity, and for that matter, just plain theatricality, are even tougher nuts to crack. This collection of plays, conceived by Brian Shnipper and based on an event of the same name held in Los Angeles also this past June, takes longer than it should to set those shells flying. But once it does, there's no stopping it from being both seriously entertaining and painfully moving.

First, however, you have to wade through a lake of the same-old-same-old. Jordan Harrison's "The Revision" ostensibly concerns two men preparing their joint wedding vows, but spirals into a bland attack on the restrictions of the language, tax returns, and health insurance that keep them from being treated exactly the same as straight couples. Though an interesting idea, the ever-evolving punch line ("Do you, Nathan Phillip Percy, take Wallace Walker to be your lawfully civil-unioned or domestic-partnered partner," and so on) is more cackling than cutting, and its dramatic payoff is negligible. Much the same is true of Doug Wright's "On Facebook," supposedly an adaptation of an actual Facebook discussion between a self-professed yet inarticulate "conservative" and a group of other commenters who take great joy in mocking and taking her down. It's obvious and only intermittently humorous (the spoken "Like" buttons are the highlight), but its main problem is its length, which makes it feel increasingly mean spirited as the central conflict fails to develop after upwards of 10 minutes.

Better at not wearing out their welcomes are Wendy MacLeod's "This Flight Tonight" and Paul Rudnick's "The Gay Agenda." The former fares decently because it focuses on two likable women flying from California to Iowa to tie the knot, though it's shakier than it should be at establishing the depth of the relationship on its commentary turns. Rudnick's scores as much as it does because, like so many of his plays, it's incredibly funny. Mary Abigail Carstairs-Sweetbuckle, who belongs to roughly a dozen family-oriented groups and disapproves of gay marriage even though she insists she doesn't hate anyone, relates her meeting the new neighboring couple, Bill and Stuart, while fending off a "bitchy" and "relentless" gay voice that criticizes everything about her style-challenged life. Enjoyable as the scene is, Rudnick's typical over-the-top approach strains in defining Mary with the same comedic incisiveness the playwright brought to two considerably more tolerant mothers in his uproarious The New Century at Lincoln Center in 2008.

Rudnick finds a much better (and more hilarious) balance when he returns with "My Husband," in which his off-kilter viewpoint works with his characters instead of against them. Gabrielle Finkelstein embodies every facet of the traditional Jewish mother: overbearing, passive-aggressive, and determined to marry off her children at any cost. That Michael is gay doesn't matter to her at all—that he's perpetually single, while all her friends' gay children are getting hitched left and right, does. His embarrassment mounts as she describes the outlandish lengths to which she's gone to try to fashion the illusion of his connubial bliss, including taking out a horrifying, yet flattering, wedding announcement in the Times. Outrageous as all this may be, it's a boundlessly creative rethinking of a classic stereotype that, because of the love mother and son share, seems believable in spite of itself.

That kind of cleverer and clearer attitude sets apart the second 45 minutes or so of Standing on Ceremony. That section kicks off with a brash but reflective entry from Neil LaBute called "Strange Fruit," about one man who accepts his sexuality later in life and finds a guy who makes him happy, only to lose him soon after their wedding. LaBute's backhandedly astringent dialogue is just right at capturing the bitter beauty of their brief life together. "Pablo & Andrew at the Altar of Words" is Jose Rivera's hauntingly poetic look at how two grooms "say the things we never really say in this hugely titanic struggle it can sometimes be just to survive, day to day." Mo Gaffney scripted the warm "Traditional Wedding," describing how two women from contrasting yet strangely intertwining backgrounds, who've been together for years, are enriched by legalizing their union.

But none of the plays is more touching than Mois├ęs Kaufman's "London Mosquitoes." In it, Joe gives the eulogy for Paul, his partner of 46 years who just succumbed to cancer, and ties together five decades of tumultuous social change with compelling, broader concepts about human evolution. The title takes its name from a species of insects living in the London Underground that changed so much over the past century they can no longer breed with species from the world above. How Paul saw that as metaphor for the gay experience—and how he eventually changed his mind about it—is hardly complex, but it's told with such honesty, passion, and respect that it feels revelatory.

Certainly Richard Thomas's delivery, serene and aching, angry yet accepting, is a big part of its success, and his is the finest portrayal in the show. But all the performers are a delight. Craig Bierko brings a sly masculinity to his roles, most affectingly the left-behind Tom in "Strange Fruit"; Polly Draper and Beth Leavel have an easy, percolating chemistry in "Traditional Wedding"; Mark Consuelos effects a charmingly casual affability onstage; and Harriet Harris is a two-for-one scream as Rudnick's pair of leading ladies. One does wish that Stuart Ross's direction were less uneven, and that the plays were allowed to live and breathe outside of the "staged reading" conceit, complete with music stands for holding the scripts, but one suspects this makes it easier for new celebrities to lend their names and voices for a few weeks at a time, a la Love, Loss, and What I Wore.

Reportedly the running order of Standing on Ceremony is somewhat fluid, allowing for plays to be added or dropped. Perhaps this will showcase different works or let different performers be seen to their best advantage? Whatever the rules may be, the last five plays are unquestionably good enough to stand on their own, and permanently, and deserve that opportunity. They're all three-dimensional and thoughtful, treating these as stories worth telling that just happen to be about gay people. Those crusading for true equality couldn't ask for anything better than that.

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays
Through February 26, 2012
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane off 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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