Richard Green – Talkin Broadway, December 9, 2015
Add “playwright” to the already-hyphenated actor-singer-director Ken Page’s business cards. His gentle personal history of gay rights rises to the heights of stage poetry in this Max & Louie world premiere production.
It may seem a little strange to younger audiences, the yearning-from-afar that is the sum and substance of his very charming script. “Yearning from afar” was the favorite sport of gay America, right up until about the time that Madonna came along.
But when this show’s interval rolled around, a handful of young men near me vanished from the audience of this very Williams-esque “memory play.” I almost think the whole concept of unrequited love has become unrecognizable to them, in their modern lives (thanks, of course, to people like the ones represented in this very play).
As Carrie Bradshaw might have said, around the time those same young guys were born, “I couldn’t help but wonder: is anybody ever ‘unrequited’ anymore?”
But as playwright-actor-singer-director Page explains, through his characters, the whole delicate, unifying theme of Sublime Intimacy is that you can achieve a joyous, powerful romantic bond with another adult without ever actually having sex with them (and sometimes without even actually meeting them).
Alfredo Solivan plays the dancer, handsome and graceful in his movements; and the play starts with him inadvertently inspiring a passionate young painter (the appropriately angsty Michael Cassidy Flynn). But Mr. Flynn’s section of the play needs a smashed mirror, or torn canvas, or some kind of dramatic physical event, to make it more real, more “dramatic.”
That said, Mr. Solivan leaves a trail of happily broken hearts behind him, playing different dancers most of the way through. I’m sure this still happens today, though in an age of Grindr and Scruff and gay marriage, it’s a little hard to imagine gay men wistfully yearning their lives away any more.
Sublime Intimacy works around the historically important police raids and random beatings and everyday humiliations that came before Stonewall, and which were even heightened in the 1970s, years before the AIDS crisis. As a result of the salon atmosphere of the play, the whole era reflected on stage takes on a genuine, lovely patina. “Tragedy plus time” may equal comedy, but throw in some courtly irony and it all comes out as a ghostly, charming romance.
The paintings unveiled around the stage are very stirring (by local artist Marjorie Williamson) and, like the play itself, they heighten our fixations on “the ones that got away.” With many scenes set in Mr. Page’s hometown of St. Louis, the play gains steady impact beginning with a reminiscence by Don (played by John Flack), an “urban pioneer” in our Central West End during the strange days after white flight, when great crumbling mansions could be had for a song.
Things really take off when Don recalls his days as a contract player in Hollywood. There, in the 1940s, he has a sort of schoolboy crush on another actor he’s seen (from afar, of course) in a studio commissary. The on-stage magic begins as a combination of Mr. Page’s writing and Mr. Flack’s glowing power of transcendence.
Sublime Intimacy accumulates glittering emotional texture with all the outlines of an unbowed, rueful Sondheim musical. It looks back at a lovely, private period in gay history, without self-loathing, and without ever looking back in fear.
J. Samuel Davis is appropriately gentle and lyrical as the narrator, and as an occasional stand-in for Mr. Page himself, as “Tim Pace.” He becomes especially entertaining in act two, when New York beckons and the disco revolution is coming into vogue. It’s a rare pleasure to see Mr. Davis (frequently relegated to purely dignified roles around town) cutting loose, and whooping out a dance-floor refrain.
Bethany Barr is wonderful as the girl who falls in love with a series of gay men other than the dancer. She’s funny and wise and only bemusedly embittered at herself. And her final scene, like Mr. Flack’s big (platonic) love scene, is bittersweet for what older audiences will know must be remain hidden.
Reginald Pierre does well as a skeptical boyfriend in act one, but perhaps needs even more lines scoffing at the notion of platonic love as a stand-in for the younger audience. He also does very nicely as a Frenchman arranging a date between Mr. Page—make that Mr. Pace—and the mysterious dancer, in yet another guise—back when heartbreak was the badge of honor we all wore.
Through December 20, 2015, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (between Saint Louis University and the Fox Theatre).