From its in-your-face offensive title to its mind-boggling plot twists, Topher Payne’s Angry Fags aims to provoke.
What if, Payne’s play asks, gay men were victimizers instead of victims? What if, instead of being demonized by those who would deny their rights and visit violence upon them, they fought back? What if, instead of believing the message “it gets better,” they decided to make it better through terrorism?
It may be that, somehow, a gifted playwright could answer those questions in a compelling way. Payne isn’t that playwright, and Island City Stage’s season-opening production of Angry Fags can’t disguise that fact, despite the considerable efforts of director Andy Rogow, his cast and the creative team.
Island City is now sharing the Abyss Theatre space in Wilton Manors with the Infinite Abyss company, and the move is an upgrade, with more comfortable seats, more of those seats and a larger playing area. The first show, however, is a stumble backwards: an overwritten revenge fantasy that takes its characters to implausible places and devolves from black comedy to bloody mess. Literally.
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The play begins with an incendiary act of violence in Atlanta, then jumps back in time to track the events leading up to the game-changing bombing.
Bennett Riggs (Michael Scott Ross) is a gay speech writer on the staff of Allison Haines (Sharyn Peoples), a lesbian state senator. Bennett’s roommate, Cooper Harlow (Craig Moody), is also gay, but the two are just pals. Jittery Bennett, who recently broke up with his boyfriend and even more recently quit smoking, is interested in fellow staffer Adam Lowell (Jeffrey Leshansky). But though their coworker Kimberly Phillips (Gretchen Porro) keeps encouraging Bennett to make a move, he’s pretty certain an office romance with the baldly ambitious Adam is a bad idea.
Running for reelection, the liberal Allison is facing off against Peggy Musgrove (Merry Jo Cortada), a woman aligned with right-wing causes. Like Allison, Peggy has a voice bathed in the sounds of the south, but she also has a tendency to make statements guaranteed to rile the folks who support her opponent — not that she means to offend anyone, she assures.
After Bennett’s ex is horrifically beaten and left clinging to life, Cooper decides he’s had it with hate crimes, that such attacks keep happening because no one thinks gay men will fight back. He wins Bennett over, and the two become terrorists in defense of what he calls their “tribe.”
It’s then that Angry Fags, which has its share of wry or amusing lines in its early scenes, proceeds to run off the rails, as murder, mayhem and martyrdom follow.
Neither successful satire nor theater of the absurd, Angry Fags asks its actors to go from bantering about Steel Magnolias and the appeal of the McRib sandwich to carrying out pragmatic or strategic executions. Or accepting the deaths of innocents as collateral damage. Sorry, not buying it any more than Tracey Cramer’s Detective Preston is buying the duo’s protestations of innocence.
Though Cooper kicks off the murder spree with a can of robin’s egg blue paint, Moody plays him as a flighty cliché, making it doubly difficult to believe the character’s embrace of pitiless violence. Ross’ Bennett is an appealing semi-nerd, and his seduction-on-the-sofa scene with Leshansky’s dashing Adam is one of the few sweet moments in a play that doesn’t have many.
Of all the actors, Porro is the one who makes it through Angry Fags unscathed (though the same can’t be said of Kimberly). She brings warmth and goofy humor to her early scenes, then makes a thoroughly convincing turn into terrified despair.
The Island City production employs videos shot by George Wentzler and Mark Demeter to flesh out the story and the middle portion of Michael McClain’s set, with short appearances by Iris Acker, Sean Dorazio, Kathryn Johnston, Barry Katz, Fern Katz, Kent Wilson and the videographers. Costume designer Peter A. Lovello, lighting designer Preston Bircher and sound designer David Hart do their usual fine work. This time, though, it’s not in service of a play worthy of their talents.
If you go
What: ‘Angry Fags’ by Topher Payne.
Where: Island City Stage production at the Abyss Theatre, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy., Wilton Manors.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 13.
Information: 954-519-2533 or visit www.islandcitystage.org.