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Bittersweet, bumpy journey from sexed-up ’70s to AIDS-ravaged ’80s

“Friends and Relations,” the comedic drama about a circle of gay friends that spins out of control, shares a tender kinship with Terrence McNally’s work. The unapologetic, warts-and-all portrayal of the elastic, often strained bonds among seven gay men recalls “Love! Valour! Compassion!” Attempting to chronicle New York’s 1970s sex and drug-fueled scene that gets quashed by the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s, the play echoes the epic sweep of “Some Men.”

Regrettably, this earnest effort nearly comes undone by its grand ambitions. Marc Castle has devised a baffling, ping-pong narrative structure, and, despite the admirable efforts of director Adam Fitzgerald, the drama occasionally loses steam.

The thread that loosely holds the choppy narrative together is the roller-coaster relationship between Miles (Matt Golden), a graphic artist, and Corey (Joel T. Bauer), a cute, struggling actor/ waiter/ alcoholic who occasionally strips to his briefs, providing eye candy to the proceedings. There’s also the soul-searching Byron (Vince Nappo) and the flighty dental student Glen (Nigel DeFriez), long-term lovers with issues of their own.

The breakout success of the group is Dean (Dan Amboyer), who moves to LA and becomes a TV star, though his “open” marriage to a woman causes friction. Ross (Christopher Sloan) offers generous doses of sage wisdom and comic relief, while Bobby (Ben Roberts) proposes an annual reunion at a gay restaurant to celebrate their friendship.

At one time or another, nearly all of the men seek help from a therapist; revelatory excerpts from their sessions are a recurring motif in the two-hour play.

To its credit, Castle’s script deftly weaves in faded cultural references that are touchstones of gay history. Byron observes that Anita Bryant, who led a revolt against gay rights in 1977, was actually a godsend, since the controversy galvanized the gay community and gave it political clout.

Bobby’s bold move to put a personal ad in the New York Native, the first gay newspaper that dared report on the emerging “gay cancer,” is positively quaint by today’s standards — he’s taken aback when one respondent mails a photo revealing his dick. (The production gets bonus points for using what looked like an issue of Gay City News as a stand-in for the Native.)

Two of the more popular bathhouses, Everard (affectionately called Everhard) and Man’s Country, are casually mentioned. What’s more, the play reminds us that the Saint, arguably the most infamous pleasure dome of the era, was formerly the Fillmore East, an equally infamous rock venue. It also touches on the shattering demise of Rock Hudson, survivor’s guilt, and how many first thought the “gay plague” was caused by using poppers.

The performances are, for the most part, quite solid. As the bossy Miles, who tends to bury his feelings, Golden is particularly engrossing. Nappo takes a sketch of a character, Byron, a therapist who first finds faith in church services and later in ACT UP meetings, and teases out extraordinary richness. Sloane, whose Ross is obsessed with Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, and Thelma Ritter, delivers his bon mots so perfectly we nearly forget he’s playing a nelly stereotype.

As for that faulty narrative structure, “Friends and Relations” monkeys around with the time periods to dizzying effect. Despite announcing the year via projections (1986, 1977, 1978, 1986, 1980, 1979, 1985, and so on), and playing a snippet of an era-evocative pop tune at the start of each scene, we often become hopelessly lost. The fact that the characters don’t distinctively change their appearance between years doesn’t help, either.

During much of the first act, the lack of a linear narrative or dramatic arc sabotages any momentum. The second act fares much better, when several conflicts — including a breakup, a reunion, and a panic attack — generate true emotion.

Although publicity materials announce “wild, hedonistic late 1970s,” there’s only one potentially racy scene, which takes place at the Saint. Even with the throbbing music, gyrating men, disco ball lights, and DeFriez’s hyper turn as the MDA-tweaked Glen, the portrayal feels awkwardly tame, failing to deliver on that tantalizing promise.

What “Friends and Relations” does deliver on is carefully depicting how gay men must create their own versions of family, testing the limits of love, lust, and loyalty. Not only was this important in the 1970s and ‘80s, it’s just as vital today.

Essentials:

FRIENDS AND RELATIONS

June Havoc Theatre

Abingdon Complex

312 W. 36th St.

Through Dec. 17

Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.

Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m.

$18; friendsandrelationstheplay.com

Updated 8:15 pm, August 29, 2018
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