Friday, March 13, 2009

Theater Review: Gay Slave Handbook (Wings Theatre Company)

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Play logo photo by Brooklyn Scalzo (
Actor photos from the Internet

Gay Slave Handbook is the latest play staged by prolific writer and director (and Emmy winner) Blake Bradford. It is nearing the end of its run at the Wings Theatre, home of the Wings Theatre Company, at 154 Christopher Street, in New York.

The title is a bit misleading for a play that is actually quite an intimate study of three friends who are brought together in high school by a tragedy in rural North Carolina, and follows them over the next 12 years through three non-intermission acts.

[Justin Maruri plays Sebastian]
We are introduced at first to Sebastian and Jimmy at the funeral of a teen (who dies before the story begins, via a fire). Sebastian is played intensely by Justin Maruri. From the first moment, the audience’s eyes are drawn to him. He emotes well just by moving his face in reaction without overreacting, the sign of strong performing skills in this reviewer’s opinion. Sebastian is a bundle of nerves, and the heart of the trio. Though he is out, he holds secrets that bring his life into turmoil by the second act. His is the driving force that moves the characters into action, sometimes for the better and, well, sometimes not.

[Peter Carrier is Jimmy]
Jimmy is introduced as someone who is a gazer in life. He is a devout Mormon, and tries to stick to his beliefs though his heart is with Sebastian. His church’s strict, homophobic tenets force him into a conflicted closet. Jimmy is the spiritual and childlike part of the trio, and is as confused as everyone, but in a more obvious way. Boston-born actor Peter Carrier presents him as quiet, but in a bubbling under, constricted way, until the last act (don’t worry, I won’t divulge too much). Peter has a wide range, from the blank deer-in-headlights self-blinding innocence, to the thunderous realization of what the effects his suppression has on others.

[Jackie Byrne is Giulia]
As the dead teen’s best friend and emotional id of the bonded trio, is Giulia, a natural force played by Jackie Byrne. While she is loud, vulgar and speaks her mind (often at the top of her lungs), it is a simple stare near the end of the first act that brought tears to my eyes. Jackie plays her at full speed, as her character is trying to get past her emotions and bad health, and especially her fears of being alone, through bravado and self-medication. Jackie portrays her unabashedly, without making her a joke (though she does have some of the best comedic dialog, she never becomes a clown, which would cheapen the character). I’m not quite sure why, however, she is the only one with an accent.

These three strong characters fade in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes for the betterment, and at others for the detriment, but they all need each other. For, you see, they have no problem being brutally honest with each other, but it seems they cannot be honest to themselves, and need the others to hold up their own mirrors.

[Blake Bradford, writer/director]
The first act, which takes place in 1997, is a series of vignettes, taking place over the first months of the relationship between the three. While it develops the core affection between Sebastian and Jimmy, and how they interrelate with Giulia, it shows their growing bond and sets the grounding for what follows. Despite a couple of clich√© moments (e.g., Giulia threatening Jimmy if he hurts Sebastian, which I can remember as far back as the film Bed of Roses in 1996), the story line keeps one’s attention to the lives to these recent high school graduates as they try to find themselves by finding each other.

The next act takes place in a solo location a few years later, which is an apartment in New York City, as they are in young adulthood, still on the path or trying to realize what their place is in the world, or in one case, if there even is such situation. But even that turns into something else that places a catalyst in the story for the third act, but I jump ahead. While there are still some funny moments, such as a Giulia meltdown during the 2003 blackout, this act is a lot more serious as information bursts into the forefront, and where some characters can handle this and grow from it; others have further problems because of it.

The final act, and I won’t give it away, takes place in the present. It has a sort of redemptive quality for one character, but sort of leaves others in self-made limbo. This act finds the humor level in the middle, with some very humorous moments, and some blatantly shocking ones. The play leaves off on a sort of dissonant tone, but in a way that makes the audience wanting more, even after an hour and a half.

I would like to make a quick kudo about the set design, which varied from both simple to eloquent, and the designer handled them both well.

This was the first production I have seen at the Wings Theatre, and I congratulate them for acknowledging this work, which is a new play that had only been staged before (to crucial acclaim) at the Scottish Fringe Festival. Meanwhile, Blake is already busying his next project, which includes actors Sara Towber and Molly Church, with whom I shared a drink after we saw this play. I look forward to seeing them all work together.

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