So I received an e-mail from Matt Everett (cards on the table: I know the playwright), offering me a comp to come and review this show, with the caveat that this one, unlike the previous shows of his that I’d seen and reviewed, was not a romantic comedy. This is significant, because it is emphatically one of his favored genres, and it is emphatically not mine. My feelings walking away from his last two shows had been the same: skillfully constructed, with a flair for clever one-liners and psychological nuance, characters who reveal themselves naturally and subtly through the course of dialogue without feeling forced; but all placed at the service of a concept that held little interest for me.
Romantic comedies revolve largely around wish fulfillment, and while there are often hints of more disturbing conflict swirling beneath the surface, the function of the plays is mainly to experience vicariously the giddy pleasures of realizing that you’re really into someone, and they’re really into you. And I guess my feeling about love stories is similar to my feeling about religious conversions, or orgasms: they’re really awesome to have, but it’s not terribly interesting to witness someone else experiencing one. Kind of depressing to witness someone else experiencing one, actually.
But this is not that. It isn’t about the euphoric, early stages of a relationship, although those are sketched out briefly, broadly, and elegantly early on. This is a story about love in the face of darkness, and that is something I’m much more ready to groove on.
I say “darkness”, not only in the sense of evil – although I would characterize much of the ideology that the characters confront as evil – but also darkness in the sense of being murky, opaque. There’s no clear villain that the heroes have to confront, unless it’s a sprawling bureaucracy, a silent wish in a collective unconsciousness; they’re throwing their punches at something they can never really clearly identify, and that’s the source of much of their frustration. This is the most ambitious script of Matt’s that I’ve seen, and that probably contributes to making it my favorite.
It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It walks a tightrope of sentimentality, occasionally stumbling into moments of being maudlin. Some of the characters embrace an emotionalism that I frankly can’t imagine from the soldiers that I’ve known, although it’s certainly possible that they’ve simply chosen not to share that side of themselves with me. (I will say that one of the characters portrayed a panic attack brought on by PTSD that I – as someone who lives with panic disorder – found distressingly accurate.)
The characters have an occasional tendency to burst into speeches, in much the same way that the characters in musicals burst into song. I don’t have a problem with that – in fact, I have a certain, ahem, fondness for shows that aggressively embrace their polemics – but they feel jarring within a script built around such an easy naturalism.
The show is at its best when it’s understated. At its core, this is one of any countless love stories between a soldier abroad and his mistress back home, struggling with the frustrations of isolation and fidelity: the twist is that both of the lovers are men.
Okay, here’s the fundamental truth about Matt Everett’s scripts: on the surface, they appear to be very modernist confrontations with contemporary political issues. But the fact is that at their core, what he writes is surprisingly traditional: drawn with the same broad strokes and deft touches, the same classical construction and – I suspect most importantly – efficiency of language as any number of movies or plays from the nineteen-thirties. He writes for the economy of gesture and the internalized intensity of men like Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, and I don’t think he’s yet found a cast that truly grasps that.
What’s truly clever about his scripts is the fact that he embraces such a classical form, but sets it in a modern context, against modern problems. A lot of gay theatre struggles to create a new language: his plays embrace the fact that we’re all speaking exactly the same text. So perhaps the most ironic thing is that being such a traditionalist is precisely the thing that makes his scripts so subversive.