There is a certain sensibility that is unique to any gay man who came of age in the years immediately after Stonewall and before AIDS, a sensibility that younger generations don't have and find hard to understand. The 1970s came as an explosive release after years of closeted oppression -- Barbra, Liza, and the ghost of Judy reigned supreme, and in the big cities at least it was suddenly okay to fuck anyone and anything you pleased. Of course, those years of freewheeling self-expression came with a horrible price, and not just in a devastating body count. AIDS changed the face of gayness in so many ways, both positive and negative, and in ways that are still evolving 20-plus years into the crisis.
Beginning on the eve of the Stonewall riots in 1969 and ending on the eve of Matthew Shepard's vigil in 1998, Chuck Blasius's We Were There chronicles the relationship of Douglas and Jean and the effects of gay liberation on both of them (and the world in general.) The play owes a debt to Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year, structured as it is as a series of scenes set five years apart and at key moments in the lives of its protagonists as they deal with an ever-changing world. But while there is no denying that We Were There bears a more than superficial resemblance to that whopping mid-70s hit, it is not simply a gay version of a fluffy Broadway comedy. Blasius's work is much more personal and intense, and he tries to grasp huge issues with an angry, self-effacing wit. And his delineation of his characters is terrific -- the portraits of Douglas and Jean are very finely drawn, and as played by Robert Gomes and Ken Mason they are attractive, endearing, and beautifully flawed human beings. Gomes in particular gave a performance of remarkable subtlety -- his was the less flamboyant role, yet his quiet strength never yielded to the showier but no less dignified Mason. And mercifully, neither gentleman was of the breathtakingly gorgeous GQ Homo Model physicality -- they were both good-looking in a matter-of-fact, natural way that allowed their characters, and the play itself, to be that much more appealing.
But the play is too long (just shy of three hours) and the focus is too wide for the intimate drama at its core, and, as directed by Blasius, without a consistent tone or point of view. Blasius the director never followed through on the tremendous feelings Blasius the writer poured into his work, and Blasius the writer never allowed Blasius the director to make the cuts necessary to give the work either the taut anger or the visceral punch that would sustain its dated premise. Its seven scenes thrive on the kind of anecdotal information that fuel conversations among musical-comedy queens over the age of 40 (including one egregious error in just what Carol Channing was up to in August, 1974 --check it out, Chuck), but only paid lip service to the larger issues, such as self-esteem, coming out as a celebrity, the responsibilities of fatherhood, AIDS activism, etc., that have come to the forefront in the last 30 years. In addition, Blasius backed himself into a corner by restricting the action to an apartment on Gay Street. By the later scenes, when both Douglas and Jean are successful (Douglas becomes a financier, Jean a TV sitcom star), Blasius was reaching unconvincingly to provide reasons for Jean's retaining the ratty flat.
That ratty flat, however, indeed the entire production, was gorgeous: the lovingly wrought details of CJ Howard's studio apartment set were complemented and enhanced by Rob Hilliard's warm lighting, Claire Verlaet's scrupulously researched fashion parade, and Betty Roger's equally outstanding work with the men's ever-changing hair styles (the wig budget must have been enormous!). Tellingly, the overall attention to detail in nearly every aspect of the production was so astute that it made the few slip-ups that much more noticeable (Green wine? A wall clock stopped at 1:50 for nearly thirty years? A tie left on a bedpost for 15 years?) Also quite good was Roger Anderson's evocative sound design, which among other things charted the vocal decline of Barbra Streisand with amusing, if unintentional, clarity. But maybe that wasn't an unintended subtlety after all. Streisand's voice declined in direct proportion to the decline of her fan base -- those gay men like Douglas and Jean, who lived and died as her career waxed and waned. It was those subtle details that gave We Were There whatever power it had, details that unfortunately were overwhelmed by the scope of its author's, and director's, conflicting intentions and possibly cherished memories.
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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita