Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: Collected Plays of Mart Crowley

The Collected Plays of Mart Crowley

Published by Alyson Books

Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano

Unlike many contemporary writers who just happen to have written for the stage, nobody could accuse Mart Crowley of being a closet novelist. In the six plays collected here, the dialogues and stage notes show a vivid sense of theatricality and are the work of an author who is deeply concerned with the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, to borrow Guy Debord’s phrase. Just look at the lushly fetishistic descriptions of the sets: that of Avec Schmaltz (1984) ‘could be a Hallmark card or a window in Bloomingdale’s’, while that of The Men from the Boys (2002) should, we are told, be ‘Abstract and stylish... Dramatic and anal. And, of course, it should positively scream “taste”’. In Crowley’s worlds image and impression are everywhere and are, at least initially, everything, but there are shocks aplenty when the superficial sheens are blasted away to reveal just how damaged, frightened, and alone his psychologically complex characters are.

And so most of Crowley’s human creations lead necessarily duplicitous lives: there is the one they want others to believe they are, and the one they themselves want to believe they are not. Nowhere are the effects of this more painful than in For Reasons that Remain Unclear (1993), in which a seemingly innocuous chance encounter in the Eternal City between an aging Roman Catholic priest and a smart Hollywood scriptwriter turns into a tense, emotionally violent playoff between a paedophile and his former prey. Wised up audiences, will, of course, recognise the thematic signs before they are spelled out, but this doesn’t weaken Crowley’s power as a dramatist. His purpose is less about lulling his audiences into a false sense of security than inviting them to watch as his characters are slowly shaken out of theirs. If this process is sometimes predictable in terms of the plot – the loudening church bells at the start of For Reasons can only mean one thing: that a crescendo of difficult truth is building – the very inevitability makes it all the more theatrically compelling.

Mercifully, the rest of the collection is far less distressing. Best (and best-known) of the bunch is Crowley’s first work, The Boys in the Band, a wise-cracking bitch-fest which hit the stage running in January 1968 and changed both the face and the pace of gay drama forever. Flash forward three and a bit decades and Crowley was serving up the sequel, The Men from the Boys, whose dialogues are as reassuringly quick-fire as the original gang returns to commemorate the passing away of Larry (who, shock horror, hasn’t died of AIDS – ‘We know what you thought! Gay men do die of other things!’ Michael reminds us). These two plays in themselves make this collection worth forking out for and, taken together, provide a thrilling reminder of just how entertaining a group of gay men in a room drinking together can be. To the untrained ear, the characters might seem to do little else than snarl and bark at one another, but listen a little closer and we hear that even at their most cutting, the party members throw each other the best lines by opening up opportunities to come back with ever wittier comments. (Who said gay people don’t make great team players?)

There is, however, one sad thing about this book that just won’t go away: the fact that its author only managed to complete six stage plays in four decades. If Crowley had spent less time working on shoddy TV shows like Hart to Hart and the Colbys, who knows what theatrical legacies he might have left?

Giuseppe Albano lives and works in London. His translations of poems by Annelisa Alleva were recently published in La Casa Rotta (Jaca Book, Milan, 2010).

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