Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Reverend's Reviews: New Play Pride House Explores Fire Island's History

The LGBTQ+ mecca that is Fire Island, located off the coast of New York's Long Island, has served as the setting of numerous movies (Longtime Companion, the aptly-titled Fire Island), plays (Lips Together, Teeth Apart) and TV series (American Horror Story: NYC) over the years. This makes sense, as the summertime resort destination has been attracting members of our community for well over a century.

TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), NYC's oldest LGBTQ+ theater company, is currently celebrating the start of its 50th season with the world premiere of Pride House. It runs through this Saturday, February 10th at the Flea Theater. Please visit their website for full info and tickets. Playwright Chris Weikel explores the dramatic, and comedic, dynamics among a microcosm of Fire Island inhabitants during the globally-tumultuous years of 1938-1939.

The play's setting is a Cherry Grove cottage owned by Beatrice "Bea" Farrar, which she shares with her ex-husband Thomas and two Jewish children they are temporarily sheltering from the growing spread of Nazism in Europe. Bea is happy to count among her friends a number of gay men who also make frequent use of her home. Her ex-husband is also gay, but Thomas has remained on mostly friendly terms with Bea. Weikel, the cast, and director Igor Goldin evoke numerous challenges that impacted real-life Fire Islanders at the time including the Great Depression, homophobic neighbors, racism and, last but not least, the Great Hurricane of 1938.

Alas, Pride House ultimately suffers from trying to tackle too many issues and incorporating too many characters. While addressing the rampant antisemitism of the time (with definite parallels today) is noble, the inclusion of the two Jewish children proves to be one issue and two characters too many. I feel the play would be more focused and effective if it concentrated specifically on Bea and the colorful gay men in her life. Even the homophobia they confront via Bea's neighbors could be alluded to rather than personified. These excesses also make an already lengthy play feel that much longer.

On the plus side, Pride House features an excellent, fully-committed cast led by Jamie Heinlein as Bea (and in spite of some flubbed lines during the February 3rd performance I attended). Also deserving of specific mention are Jessica Disalvo as an Italian ex-patriot lesbian named Natalia and London Carlisle as Edwin, a black Broadway dancer. Best of all is the hilarious Jake Mendes as Stephen, the deliciously sardonic sidekick to shrill theater queen Arthur (played by Tom Souhrada). Evan Frank's set design and Ben Philipp's lovely, period-accurate costumes are similarly praise-worthy. Here's to TOSOS and another 50 years!

Reverend's Rating: B

Reverend was also privileged to recently attend Jonah, another world premiere play in NYC. Rachel Bonds' potent work isn't a biblical tale and there are no whales involved, but it does include a powerful religious message. Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, it is running at the Laura Pels Theatre through March 10th.

It's difficult to describe the plot of Jonah without revealing spoilers. Gabby Beans (a deserving Tony Award nominee last year for her turn in Lincoln Center's revival of The Skin of Our Teeth) headlines the play as Ana, a young woman dealing with the unpredictable aftereffects of sexual abuse. Beans is riveting, especially since she never leaves the stage during the 100-minute performance. She is very well supported by Samuel H. Levine, Hagan Oliveras and John Zdrojeski as the various men in her life, some of whom may be imaginary/fantasized.

Danya Taymor (who is a niece of The Lion King director Julie Taymor) provides engrossing direction, utilizing various sleight-of-hand techniques in the lighting and staging to keep audience members on their toes. However, my friends who attended the performance with me and I had issues with Wilson Chin's unchanging set, which serves as multiple locations in multiple time periods. More variation in the set design or decor would have been helpful in this regard.

I also have concerns, as an ordained priest-bishop, about the play's critique of Confession or the sacrament of Reconciliation as practiced by both Catholics and Mormons/LDS. God knows there have been many abuses of the sacrament over the centuries but I can attest to the beauty of the practice, as both confessor and confessee, when it is done or celebrated in a legitimate, non-exploitive way. Still, I appreciate playwright Bonds' serious treatment of this and other spiritual/theological matters. All in all, Jonah is excellent and demanding of patronage.

Reverend's Rating: A-

While the general population is currently focused more on movie-related awards and top-ten lists, Reverend was excited to realize recently that last year was the first year I attended a substantial number of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions since moving from California to Connecticut nearly 6 years ago. Subsequently, I was moved to identify my picks of the 10 best NYC theatre productions of calendar year 2023 (in alphabetical order):

  • & Juliet
  • Camelot (revival)
  • Dear World (revival)
  • Here Lies Love
  • How to Dance in Ohio
  • The Jerusalem Syndrome
  • Purlie Victorious (revival)
  • 1776 (revival)
  • The Shark is Broken
  • White Girl in Danger
Honorable Mention: Titanique
This musical spoof of James Cameron's Oscar-winning movie has been running off-Broadway nearly 3 years now, but last year was the first time Reverend saw it in person after watching an early, streamed performance in 2020 at the height of COVID-19. It was/is an utter, must-see delight.

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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