Just how far have LGBT people, and equality, come? It’s an eternal question (and one asked a lot in Pride month), and one which—when raised in the mainstream—tends to mean in terms of politics and culture. Just how unequal do LGBT people remain? What is the latest homophobic, transphobic calumny to be perpetrated by whatever political party is in power?
A lesser question asked in the mainstream is how LGBT people themselves see this weather system as it affects them, how we experience it, how we feel about the progress and now what seems like a significant reversal of progress under the Trump administration.
Time’s arrow for LGBT equality has never flowed in one direction without complication and setback. AIDS, acts of murderous violence like Pulse, farts of legislative bigotry like those around “religious liberty”: Better times have come with significant clouds. Marriage equality: hooray; “bathroom bills” and military bans aimed at transgender people: boo.
And living under that sunshine and clouds are LGBT people, which presumably is the idea behind Log Cabin, a play by Jordan Harrison at Playwrights Horizons in New York City about a group of LGBT friends between 2012 and 2017.
“Log Cabin” is both the name of the LGBT Republican group and an implied refuge, writes artistic director Tim Sanford (and, if you want to know more about the history of the log cabin, do read Andrew Belonsky’s wonderful illustrated history of this “teddy bear made of wood,” recently published by Countryman/W.W. Norton).
So meet Chris (Philip James Brannon), Ezra (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, playing a character much like his Modern Family role), Jules (Dolly Wells), and Pam (Cindy Cheung): two gay men and two lesbians in two relationships. In 2012, apparently, these seemingly well-off and educated LGBT people—all well-versed in politics, culture, and the rest—are trying to get their heads around what it is like being transgender.
The play, directed by Pam MacKinnon, features a selection of evenings at Jules and Pam’s Brooklyn apartment.
The spur for this is the transition of Henry (Ian Harvie). The friends are not only ignorant about pronouns and the general changes Henry is going through, but also—empathetically—totally lacking in understanding about Henry. That’s stranger. Even if they get all the language wrong, even if all their alleged intelligence fails at understanding what transitioning may mean, you’d think they would care about their friend. Henry seems to be more scorned than anything.
When Henry appears, he is with girlfriend, Myna (Talene Monahon), and both supply a corrective to the smug laziness and pantomime ignorance of the gay-lesbian quartet.
That smugness shows wear and tear over the next five years, right up to the horrors of election night. What makes a relationship comes into question, how important is fidelity, and soon there is even trans pregnancy and parenthood. Log Cabin wants to do good things. It wants to open up conversation and skewer the prejudices and hypocrisies within the LGBT community.
But there is something in the static direction and the mannered-ness of the acting company that makes all these questions, all these issues packed tight, not urgent. The couples just don’t feel like couples, whether getting along or not getting along. Silly details—like a character claiming to have spotted a partner’s infidelity from a window on a dark street happening within a taxi quite a way away sounds as physically impossible as it is utterly implausible—stand out and annoy even more.
There is also a talking infant; that is, an infant who talks in adult language. It converses across a shared imaginative border with the flawed adults around it. In reality, the infant is mute, and that is of great concern to its parents. The best speech of the play belongs to the baby (also played by Ian Harvie), but it comes too late.
You think of another group of gay people, much criticized by gay audiences, across town in The Boys in the Band. Why should one group, the Log Cabin gang, be so grating, and the other—no matter how grating they are—still command attention and affection? It’s because the characters in The Boys in the Band feel real, while Log Cabin’s characters feel like a grousing battery of pamphlets.
In the 26 years since The Crying Game, Stephen Rea has swapped allegiances. In that well-known movie, he played Fergus, the IRA terrorist who sacrificed himself for his lover, Dil (Jaye Davidson).
In Cyprus Avenue that hangdog, puppyish, glowering face is still familiarly his. But now Rea, in David Ireland’s play, plays a Unionist in the present day, beached in a new Northern Ireland many years since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 sealed an official peace.
Eric, however, still has a pathological hatred of Catholics and the IRA. Just as in the fictional universe he occupied in 1992, murder and violence remain close at hand.
The Troubles, the all-consuming, terrorism-stained conflict that one hoped was now safely in a historical rearview mirror, are still tearing at Eric’s fractured mind.
In this play, its title taken from the plush suburb that Eric lives in, he is not so such riven by hatred of Catholics, he swims in his hatred, revels in it. The Troubles have never stopped for Eric. The animus is so controlling that he sees the face of Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s former leader, in the face of his baby granddaughter.
At first this seems funny; he even draws a thick beard on her face. But he draws that beard on with a marker. Not funny. And things get really unfunny from that moment on, leading to awful, murderous tragedy.
Rea is terrifying, and terrifyingly magnetic, yet the play—witty in places, and best in dwelling in Eric’s more quiet mordancy—torpedoes itself by making him a deranged madman. The play lets Eric, and the brilliant Rea, down.
Jeanie O’Hare, director of new work development at the Public, writes in the program that the play, an Abbey Theatre and Royal Court co-production directed by Vicky Featherstone, is “poking fun at bigots, and asks what happens if they allow their craziness to take hold.” There is Swiftian satirical logic at play here too, we are told.
But any political or cultural satire is blunted because Eric is totally, dangerously mad. It is impossible to take anything he says seriously, because he really does believe Gerry Adams to be somehow manifesting in his granddaughter. His bigotry then sounds mad, his reasoning then sounds mad. His wife, Bernie (Andrea Irvine), and daughter, Julie (Amy Molloy), especially Julie, see and live the grave situation for what it is.
There is also a Unionist assassin, Slim (Chris Corrigan), who is a mix of blarney and psychopathy, and Bridget (Ronke Adékoluejo), the toneless therapist latterly trying to make sense of it all. She is black, and the play needlessly highlights Eric’s racism by letting him deploy the n-word when we first meet her and him.
The play, switching back and forth in time, all unfolds on Lizzie Clachan’s stark, plain, barely furnished and harshly lit stage, the audience facing each other on both sides. The violence, extreme and bloody as it is, is piercingly directed by Featherstone—even if, by the time it reaches its horrendous crescendo, you want to be free of this madman yourself. It feels gratuitous, and so does Cyprus Avenue—the blood and nuttiness sadly superseding whatever bigger political and cultural points the play seeks to make through its lunatic central character. The audience certainly left in shocked silence the night I attended. But that shock feels over-calculated.