Charming fifth-grader Emory may frequently be found playing with a Barbie doll or practicing a ribbon dance for his debut on the TV show “Reach for the Stars.” But despite his joy in such play, his no-nonsense Nanna reminds him that he’s a boy, and boys just don’t do that sort of thing.
Set on a chicken farm in the rural Midwest, Joshua Conkel’s “MilkMilkLemonade” at the Cabaret is what the poster appropriately calls “a gay fantasia.” However, the harsh reality it depicts is more often tragic than funny. Emory, the protagonist, suffers through the taunts of his classmates and the cynical musings of his often cruel, chain-smoking, cancer-riddled grandmother. He is only truly gleeful when he dances with his best friend, Linda the gigantic, feathered-boa-covered chicken (hilariously played by Lico Whitfield DRA ’13) while imagining his future as a tan, gorgeous performer on Broadway.
Conkel manages to keep the play from excessive moralizing by weaving in Emory’s fantasies and adorable cheer, which is what makes the play so compelling. Even when Elliot, the violent bully on the neighboring farm, punches Emory and mocks him, the fifth-grader remains bright-eyed. He refuses to respond to the pressure from people around him, saying, “To me, I’m not acting like a girl. I’m just acting like myself,” and “I really like being me.” The set, which is replete with child-like paintings of rainbows and flowers on the wall behind the barn, curiously reflects his mindset.
Though the jokes are undoubtedly hilarious, they sometimes pull away from the core of the play — the relationship between the two boys. Linda the chicken’s stand-up comedy act and conversation with a sunglasses-wearing spider are odd additions, though the chicken’s larger-than-life presence is enough to elicit laughs in every one of her scenes. Frequent references to Emory’s television dreams, such as the appearance of characters with numbered placards used to score some of Emory’s and the chicken’s performances, also warrant a chuckle.
What really makes the Yale Cabaret production successful is the expert way it tackles the complex interactions between Emory and Elliot. Played by Xaq Webb DRA ’14 and Bonnie Antosh ’13, the boys are close to one another, even though one spends his free time choreographing dances while the other spends his burning things. Elliot, as Antosh shows, is not just the rogue he appears to be at first; the little voice inside him that tells him to hurt people drives him mad, and his frequent references to prom night betray a romantic sensitivity further revealed later in the play.
Though the excellent acting brings out the varied layers of the characters, the boys’ many scenes are not without their issues. Some of Conkel’s script choices play off the children’s ages in an unnerving way — while playing house, the beer-swilling Elliot declares that an abortion is necessary, given the invented couple’s financial straits, and Emory poetically describes the plight of moths drawn to the light. Though their make-believe could be chalked up to imitations of TV scenes, their language seems oddly beyond them. The only excuse is that their youth allows the playwright to preserve the wholly necessary fantasy elements in his writing on fairly adult topics. Still, these types of topics sometimes come across as bizarre, calling attention to how out-of-place they are in this childlike setting.
A chicken farm seems like an odd location to set such a play, but with some loose connections between the plight of the chickens and that of the other characters, the Yale Cabaret cast makes it work. As Nanna says, “Life is hard, Emory. And if you’re too soft, it chews you up and spits you out.” Thankfully, “MilkMilkLemonade” is only sometimes so bleak. It might not warrant a placard with a big, shining 10, but between an enormous chicken and a sweet-hearted little boy, it comes pretty close.