Other than presumably taking up a challenge from President Chester A. Arthur to grow a more impressive set of mutton chops, there isn't much to connect pioneering dramatist Henrik Ibsen to Sag Harbor, NY (where Arthur had a home). He too grew up in a coastal town, in Norway, and hobnobbed among as elite a set of friends as anyone in the Hamptons ever has.
And although Ibsen ostensibly has nothing to do with Chad Beguelin's newest play "Harbor," now running at Primary Stages, if you're familiar with "A Doll's House" you might notice a few parallels here and there. Everything else about the plot resembles a mash-up of "Honey Boo-Boo" and "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy."
Enjoying the play won't make you feel nearly as guilty as you should feel enjoying the other two shows, but that's a testament to Beguelin's deft writing and his gifted cohorts of actors and director, most of whom were imported from the original production at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut.
Our headlines, our courts and our entertainment have been chronicling the experiences of gay Americans more often. While it's easy to hail this as an overdue, progressive step, there is room for debate as to how all of these narratives are coalescing.
New York stages, for instance, have been rife lately with plays that intersect teen bullying and homosexuality. Indeed, simply being a young person with an interest in theater has become synonymous with being some sort of gay misfit, a message all but inferred in Neil Patrick Harris' opening number at the Tony Awards. It's not unfair to suggest that our culture is in danger of casting the gay man or woman as a perpetual victim.
So one of the most refreshing things about "Harbor," and one of its strongest dramaturgical choices, is the fact that none of the conflict arises from sexuality. The gay couple depicted, a full-on married one no less, with hyphenated last names, seems to be at peace with broader issues of identity. To all appearances, they face no struggle about coming out to relatives, nor any outside harassment or discrimination.
True, if the wayward sister, uproariously played by Erin Cummings, were to get her own reality show, it wouldn't win any GLAAD awards. Her worldview, framed by a tough life and some self-sabotage, bridges any gap between political incorrectness and intentional offense, and is copiously lubricated with "the other 'f'-word." But Cummings gives the character a sharp sense of humor as well as a grounded disposition. We laugh almost unfailingly, knowing that if she ever held a picket sign for Fred Phelps she'd be trying to help him get carnal with it.
Cummings' outrageous candor is met by the impeccably cast Alexis Molnar as her teenage daughter and a solidly outstanding Paul Anthony Stewart, her brother's husband and the play's most likable role. Beguelin's comedy is delightful, but there are times when it tries to escape from the play it's confined to. Extended riffs about yuppie parents and obesity read more as remnants of an aborted standup career than an organic tangent inherent to the story.
Some jokes could only be funny to an audience of privilege. When Cummings boasts that she has a line on a job that could pay her as much as $30,000 a year, the Manhattan audience guffaws, and you hate the row in front of you a little bit. According to Wikipedia, the median income for a single woman in Manhattan, Kansas, by contrast, is less than 25K. When the van that is her home is described as smelling like feet, and with rather exaggerated rhetoric at that, the crowd stays mostly silent in a gesture of mass penance.
The comedy also eventually runs out of steam. This isn't because Beguelin can't sustain it, but because events take a far more dramatic turn, and he chooses to give them the gravity they are due. But the heavy ending leaves us with a bleak aftertaste, like chasing down a slice of cheesecake with a salt water gargle.
Like Nora and Torvald of Ibsen's classic, our gay husbands are not equal partners in this marriage. Kevin (Randy Harrison) has been a wannabe novelist for ten years, and was likely picked up on a swing set. They live in a well ordered home that looks like a wedding cake (but jarringly, don't use coasters).
Unlike Nora, however, who uses her wits to ward off blackmail and cover up a felony, Kevin spends most of the play as a submissive cipher. It's not a critique of the actor to say this lack of fortitude makes the character the weakest part of the tale, as well as the most clueless. Still, they'll need to talk.
Lest it appear that I'm accusing Beguelin of ripping off Ibsen, far from it. In the right hands, an openly gay version of "A Doll's House" would be more insightful than any of the pseudo-philosophical stage origami that has passed for reinterpretations in recent years. Beguelin and director Mark Lamos have crafted an independent dramedy worth seeing on its own. And if intentional, the hat tips to Ibsen are admirable.
All they left out were the mutton chops.
"Harbor" runs through Sep. 8 at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street in Manhattan. For tickets and info, call 212-279-4200 or visit www.primarystages.org.