Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Three on a Party": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Three short stories, each written by masterful craftsmen, and each symbolizing an era in Twentieth Century social development, are brilliantly performed by a four-piece Word for Word cast. The stories' writers were gay (still are, as far as Armistead Maupin is concerned), and Theater Rhino is publicizing the gay aspects of each story, but the evening is far more nuanced that that.

First up is "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene," written in 1911 by Gertrude Stein, which seems on its surface to be the lightest of the three, with its Dr. Suess-like rhymes and repeated refrains:

"They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay."

The story is quite funny and it is remarkable that it is almost 100 years old. It is this story that was perhaps responsible for the modern use of the word 'gay,' though it meant something quite different when the story was written.

JoAnne Winter is the centerpiece of the tale of two woman, playing the real-life Ethel Mars, a compatriot of Stein's in her salon in Pre-World War 1 Paris. Winter is brilliant in this and the following piece, "Two on a Party" by Tennessee Williams, written in the early 1950s.

If "Miss Furr" is a short subject, "Two on a Party" is a complete novel. Nearly 60 minutes long, the story of Billy, the gay man and Cora, the straight woman, who decide to pool their talents and cruise the bars of America, is as touching as it is hard-hitting. Ryan Tasker's Billy is the lonely queen who has saved up his money earned from writing Hollywood potboilers and thrown in with Cora, a slightly overweight party girl several years past her prime. Together they try to enjoy the fast lane, to stay on the party as long as possible, knowing it cannot last forever. The great nights are "not as rare as hen's teeth but not so frequent as street cars." In the end, love enters the story and we feel fulfilled, heading for intermission.

After intermission, the last story is Armistead Maupin's "Suddenly Home," written in 1990, an age where issues of marriage are interspersed with worries about health. It is vintage Maupin, funny, breezy and topical, but sadly lightweight compared to what preceded it. It is probably impossible to follow Tennessee Williams with anything but another Tennessee Williams.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Three on a Party" Three Stars with a bauble of despair. Each story earns one star. The cast of Winter, Tasker, Brendan Godfrey and Sheila Balter is first rate and the Word for Word production is, as always, novel and fascinating.

The bauble of despair is because the short Stein and longer Tennessee Williams stories outclass the shorter Armistead Maupin that concludes the evening. It's not that the Maupin is bad, but that it doesn't fit. If these stories had not been chosen for their sexual politics but for the power of the written word, perhaps the company could have found a match for Williams's 'Two on a Party.' The way it is, it feels like an Act One of cake and Act Two of frosting. We leave the theater a little hungry.

"Three on a Party"
Theater Rhinoceros
16th Street, San Francisco
Through June 7

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