Raging cynics and gay men who hate gyms, bars, musical theater revivals and IKEA: meet your official spokesman. In his latest play, “Going Native,” Steven Drukman makes an attempt at an anthropological study of the American gay community and a proposed antidote to what he calls the “identi-kit approach to personality.”
“In this age when ‘difference’ is celebrated, we can easily lose sight of what makes us the same, our humanity” says Drukman. The playwright’s goal is ambitious, but the personalities of “Going Native” are caricatures, and the actors explore only the realm of the superficial.
For his mouthpiece, Drukman uses Paul (David Adkins), a 35-year-old gay Jewish man who works as a temp at the Museum of Natural History. The action of the play is interspersed with Paul’s soliloquies, which range from funny to preachy and break up the action haphazardly. David Adkins gives an energetic and upbeat performance which, although it is at times endearing, is often inappropriate for the character of Paul, who is written as a raging cynic. Jessica Walter is colorful and entertaining as Paul’s mother — her performance is by far the most successful. The other actors seem to jump obviously and too hard on their punch lines to wring laughs out of the audience.
Although “Going Native” contains many straight scenes, the cast seems to be pushing, and they reach very few emotional heights. With the exception of Walter and at times Jeremy Davidson, who plays Nick, Paul’s “straight” lover, the cast gives performances in the presentational style — all emotion is demonstrated for the audience’s sake. The effect is that it becomes impossible to find the humanity in the characters and thus in Drukman’s message. The play becomes a jumble of ideas and one-liners that are never quite connected together by a coherent, felt dramatic structure.
Through Paul’s interactions with the other characters, Drukman explores a number of communities beyond the gay community, including the radical left, the community of young intellectuals and the modern Jewish community. Although Drukman’s jokes are funny and delivered with gusto by the actors, there is little to be gleaned from his examination of these themes. Paul’s Jewish mother and uncle sit down to a Rosh Hashanah dinner to celebrate “the fact that we got outta town at the right time.” Paul questions their use of religion when it is convenient, and the response he gets from his uncle is “there are no atheists in Foxwoods.” Drukman’s charming one-liners do nothing to condone or condemn this behavior before the theme shifts to the intellectual community. Paul’s cousin Evan is an African-American Studies major who freely uses phrases such as “the plight of the American Negro” and “celebrate our differences.” He condemns his uncle’s use of the word “schwarz” (Yiddish for black), but his choices are not any better. Later, after Paul comes on to him, Evan declares he is ‘queer’, but not gay. Drukman raises the issue of the appropriation of minority labels by educated straight white liberals, but he never examines it fully. This ambiguity is aided by the orchestration of scenes by director Greg Leaming. It is impossible to identify with any character in any given scene on any basis other than who has the cleverest lines.
The action of “Going Native” takes place between the columns of a large Greek facade which reads “Homo Sapien.” The rolling set is minimalist but effective in recreating New York apartments, restaurants, a hospital room and an immaculate dining room. Scenes change mechanically as if by conveyer belt while Paul addresses the audience. The closed set functions as the museum and features double screens for the slides from Paul’s PowerPoint presentation. The use of multimedia is not breathtaking, but it is functional. The slides change from anthropological study cases (African tribes and the like) to pictures of Paul’s family and friends. The implied connection between Paul’s communities and tribal communities is obvious and the pictures shown are a bit sappy.
The play concludes with a slide of Jane Goodall with her hairy subjects followed by a photograph of Ed, Paul’s black gay friend as played by Billy Porter, dressed in drag, cuddling with Paul’s mother and uncle at their wedding. The punch line? People can be adopted into communities that are ostensibly not their own. In other words, one can “go native” for reasons unbeknownst to anyone.
Had “Going Native” no other ambition than to show a 30-something gay man looking for love in the city, it might have been more successful. It has everything that the mediocre movie on the American gay community requires — the flamboyant, cross-dressing black friend, the well-loved and yet villainous not-yet-out-of-the-closet boyfriend, the crazy/sexy/queer family, the ACT-UP parade and the occasional shopping trip to Barney’s. The only thing missing to fulfill the equation is the death of the angelic close friend or lover with AIDS. Unfortunately, the loftier aims of “Going Native” force it into the class of the failed experiment. The production is not stylistically or emotional grounded enough to show the “humanity” that Drukman was intent upon in his vision for the piece.