"Who needs another gay play?" queries a jaded thirtysomething in The Last Sunday in June, Jonathan Tolins’ new play, which opened last month at the Rattlestick Theater. It’s a question without a clear answer, but one that audiences may justifiably ask.
By "gay play," the character is referring to a specific genre of theater in which a group of gay friends assembles to sling bitchy repartee while revealing hidden truths about themselves and their relationships. Along the way, there are typical common elements: the shirtless hunk, the character everyone hates and the "gay ghetto" apartment or country house setting. The great granddaddy of the genre is Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, the play that most clearly codified the rules for future playwrights. The Last Sunday in June adheres to these rules with the strictest attention. Tolins even goes so far as to clue in the audience by having his characters play a game in which they outline the composition and content of such a play.
The last Sunday in June, as most New Yorkers know, is the date of the annual gay pride parade. This play is set on one such Sunday in the Christopher Street apartment of a young, seemingly perfect gay couple, as the parade passes noisily outside their living room window. Intending to spend the afternoon alone planning their upcoming move to suburban Nyack, Tom, a lawyer, and Michael, his partner of seven years, are interrupted as one friend after another drops in to appreciate the parade from the vantage point of their apartment one last time before the men move.
As this is a "gay play," die-cut characters are to be expected, and Tolins rolls them out with delightful precision. There is Joe, the new-to-the-city actor who is the youngest of the group. Then comes Brad, sarcastic and HIV-positive, followed by Charles – queeny, over the hill and bitter. As the boys trade barbs and witticisms, talk turns to James, an ex-boyfriend of both Tom and Brad. For no apparent reason, they call James and invite him to join in the fun. As James is the requisite "character everyone hates," his arrival naturally stirs the conflict that is the dramatic centerpiece of the play’s action. (Never fear, the shirtless hunk arrives later.)
Director Trip Cullman does a fine job here, moving his actors skillfully, staying out of the way of the jokes so that they land easily, and sometimes even deftly wringing out more of an emotional impact than the playwright’s text deserves. However, while Sunday is every bit as entertaining as it tries to be, it never manages to be as poignant as it ought to be. When all is said and done, something is missing.
Part of the problem is that there are enough complications and dramatic conflicts here for three gay plays. As is evident in his earlier work, Twilight of the Golds, Tolins enjoys raising questions and tackling issues. While having lots of ideas is a gift worth celebrating, it’s a far better thing to nail down one concept firmly and give it full exploration. So if the play makes a game attempt to tackle big themes, the results are far more lightweight than they might have been. An overwrought climax and ambiguous ending do little to mitigate the play’s shortcomings.
It’s difficult to watch The Last Sunday in June without being reminded of not only The Boys in the Band, but also Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, which neatly fits Tolins’ definition of a gay play. Where McNally’s work was not as briskly funny as this one often is, its navelgazing offered audiences genuine insight into its characters, their motivations and their lifestyle.
That’s not to say the play is without its charms. The laughs are frequent; the dialogue often rings alarmingly true. The cast is appealing and the performances are splendid, with the ensemble of actors working as a finely tuned comic machine. Kudos here especially to Mark Setlock (James), who finds the nuances in a difficult and thankless role that a less talented actor would have played as one- note. Also wonderful are Donald Corren as Charles and Arnie Burton as Brad. Both manage to find the human hearts beating beneath the gay stereotypes.
Jonathan Tolins claims to have written the play as an homage to gay theater. However, how does a genre born on the outside of society remain relevant in a world where gay lives are mainstream? The play goes about trying to find answers to that question as it gleefully deconstructs the cliches of the gay plays that have gone before it. Perhaps it’s enough that playwrights like Tolins are still out there, puzzling away at what it means to be gay in a post-gay world. Ultimately, The Last Sunday in June is an enjoyable two hours’ entertainment. If it never reaches the heights of its more meaningful predecessors, it’s still a very funny, fly-on-the-wall view of a certain kind of life.
The Last Sunday in June at the Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Pl. (betw. Perry & Charles Sts.), 212-206-1515