If there’s one lesson to be drawn from events of the last several months, it’s that nothing is to be taken for granted. Hard-won rights may be taken away tomorrow as though they’d never been attained in the first place.
Set in Greenwich Village shortly before June 28, 1969 events at the Stonewall Inn led to a multi-night rebellion that gave rise to the modern LGBTQ movement, Doric Wilson’s 1982 play “Street Theater” provides a stark reminder of what life was like in New York’s gay community not so very long ago. It’s now being revived once again at the Eagle Bar by the late Wilson’s company TOSOS, under the direction of Mark Finley.
“Street Theater” is a stylized effort, referencing everything from Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” to Tennessee Williams to Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band.” As in the latter play, Wilson gives us a parade of familiar gay (or potentially gay) “types” — a couple of hustling drag queens (Chris Andersson, Michael Lynch), a pair of closeted yuppies (Ben Strothmann, Patrick Porter), a leather enthusiast (Josh Kenney), a lesbian car mechanic (T. Thompson), a virginal naif from out west looking for his first experience (Tim Abrams), a cruising old lech in a trench coat (Jeremy Lawrence), a couple of bickering activist radicals (Desmond Dutcher, GaBe MoRaLeS), and a hippie teenage chick whose future sexual experimentation in college is virtually foreordained (Sarah Smithton). On the fringes of these fringes are a pair of corrupt vice cops (Chris Harcum, Russell Jordan) and the mob stooge who runs the Stonewall (Christopher Borg), all of whom have a financial stake in the criminalization of homosexuality, just as pimps profit from the illegality of prostitution, and dealers get rich on the inflated prices of illegal drugs. Nearly every character is forced to hide, deny, or subjugate their true natures. The eventual offstage eruption of violence feels like a fait accompli by the time it happens. If it hadn’t been at Stonewall, it would have been somewhere else.
Wilson’s play feels both timely and dated. We live in an age when people are trying to roll back marriage equality and pass absurd, vindictive bathroom laws. It’s not like homophobia has gone anywhere. But it’s hard to know what to make of Wilson’s broad character strokes in this day and age. Most of the characters are very funny and a good dozen of his witticisms are killer. The intimate playing space made note-taking awkward, but I did manage to jot down one gem: “Faggots aren’t made, they come by happenstance. That’s why the quality is so inconsistent.” In fact, that line points up what may be a quibble or a question for some. Stage and screen have seen a good many true-to-life gay LGBTQ characters in the 35 years since this play premiered. The stereotypes feel worn and outmoded. It’s hard to know what to make of the broadness of the approach, but it’s certainly thought-provoking.
That said, the cast is uniformly wonderful, not a bad apple in the bunch. Particular stand-outs for this reviewer are Andersson, Borg, Lawrence, and Lynch. And there’s a good bit of history here: TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) was formed in 1974 as the first professional gay theatre company in NYC. Several cast members have been with the group for many years. Lynch has been playing Boom Boom since the original production; Andersson has been playing Ceil since 2002. And the playwright, Wilson (1939-2011), had been an actual participant in the Stonewall Uprising. See the play above all as a living historical document, and to galvanize yourself for all the struggles to come.
STREET THEATER | The Eagle NYC, 554 W. 28th St. | Oct. 2-4 at 7 p.m. | 90 mins. | $25 at streetthea
Next up on the TOSOS slate is “All My Favorite People Are Dead.” At this early Day of the Dead celebration, 10 writers from TOSOS and company tell funny stories about friends who have passed on. As part of their Chesley/ Chambers series, it is free to the public but there will be a charitable drive for humanitarian aid to Puerto Rico and Mexico. Sun., Oct. 29, at Spoonfed NYC, 331 W. 51st St.