In Justin Anderson's production, Topher Payne's ANGRY FAGS can't quite decide what it is. The overlong (almost three hours) play is billed as a comedy, but in this production it is merely a slowly paced melodrama with a few funny lines thrown in.
Bennett, a seemingly sweet, earnest aide to an openly lesbian Georgia State Senator, has moved in with his best friend Cooper after the breakup of a three year relationship. As stridently played by Johnny Drago, Cooper is the old stereotype, a feckless, bitchy queen who's also a sociopath (during the intermission, one neighbor in the audience rightly noted that the play's gay characters reminded him of the two crypto-gay men in Hitchcock's 1947 film, ROPE). Since we have no back story to their relationship, it is not clear why these two men would be friends. When Bennett's ex is fatally gay bashed behind a gay bar, Cooper decides to become a gay avenger and quickly convinces Bennett to become his partner in crime. Cooper's idea is that gay people are still discriminated against and worse because no one is scared of them, so a bit of gay terrorism might even the odds. We watch them embark on a campaign of bombing right wing ministers, kidnapping the liberal senator who seems to have lost her moral compass, and murdering the good friend who has figured out what they're up to. There's also the political rivalry between the lesbian senator and the Christian conservative woman who is running against her and a romance between Bennett and another senatorial aide who turns out to be the most cynical character of all.
There's a good, amusing ninety minute play hidden in ANGRY FAGS, but its current state desperately needs editing. Every scene seems a couple of minutes too long and the video clips of political speeches played during the many scene changes seem endless. Since the political and religious characters speeches are all stereotypical, we know what they're going to say within a sentence or two -- why stretch it out? Payne needs a good dramaturg to go through the script and show him what to cut. A great deal of the uncertainty of tone can be traced to the lack of forward momentum. Crucial scenes that should be horrifying, like the killing of, Kimberley, the one totally sympathetic character in the play, seem to go on forever. We know they're going to kill her, so get on with it. Payne also needs to look at what characters are important and worth fleshing out and what characters can be edited or cut entirely. The only character we really come to know is Bennett and that is greatly a result of Jacob York's fine, nuanced performance, yet even there one feels the inconsistency of tone. We never have a good, convincing scene in which Bennett is drawn into Cooper's crazy plan. Is Bennett just too weak-willed to stop him after the first murder? York's good acting can't cover up the problems with the writing of his character. Perhaps Bennett and Cooper's relationship would have made more sense if there were an erotic component. Like a disciple of Quentin Tarentino, playwright Payne is more interested in plot reversals than in action that springs from the motivation of well-written characters. He has a lot of justified outrage toward right wing bigots and cynical liberal politicians. So do most of his audience. When you're preaching to the choir, you can be economical. There are also big questions that spoil some key scenes. For instance, if nice Kimberley really thought that Bennett was a murderer, wouldn't she call the police instead of showing up at his house to discuss it with him? What happens to her is awful, but she must be profoundly stupid to put herself in that situation. The odd, and perhaps most interesting aspect of ANGRY FAGS is that other than nice, if dumb, friend Kimberley, the only sympathetic character is the right wing senatorial candidate. Shouldn't our sympathies be with Bennett and Cooper if the play is to be the black comedy the playwright intended? There's a policeman who is "on to" Bennett and Cooper, but his character couldn't be more cardboard. Topher Payne should reread Joe Orton's plays a dozen times or so -- or even a good old fashioned melodrama like Patrick Hamilton's ROPE (the basis for Hitchcock's movie).
Director, Justin Anderson has fallen into the trap of worrying too much about elaborate, long scene changes instead of finding a way to keep the play moving. A lighter, swifter production would have helped. And nothing slowed this production down more than the videotapes of political speeches that were projected between scenes. This should be a funny, dangerous play. Instead it is slow, uncertain of tone and overlong. I don't mean to flog a dead horse here. As I said at the outset, there's a good, tight ninety-minute play buried in ANGRY FAGS. If Topher Payne could find it, he'd have a winner.
ANGRY FAGS by Topher Payne. Directed by Justin Anderson. 7 Stages Theatre, Atlanta. March 3, 2013.