The ploy of drawing in an audience with left-field casting decisions is a high-risk strategy; it can take a production to a much wider community but it can also overwhelm the production itself. It is easy to see why actors are tempted to these roles; it gives them an opportunity to breakout of typecasting and open the door to a range of new possibilities, and for the audience it is always a pleasant surprise to see someone outside their comfort zone.
Without such free thinking how could we have got to the reinvention of Liam Neeson from Oskar Schindler to grizzled action hero or indeed, going the other way, the meta-masterpiece JCVD with everyone’s favourite head-kicking Timecop? When it goes wrong however it can be an excruciating; the very, very brief attempt to position Kiera Knightley as an action star (Domino, anyone?) is a particularly painful memory, but far more awful can be the attempt to become a cross-over star. Britney Spears in Cross Roads, Mariah Carey in Glitter? Pick from the unfathomably terrible Mr Nanny or Santa with Muscles starring everyone’s favourite 80’s wrestling superstar, Hulk Hogan.
It was with this knowledge lodged in mind that made going to see the Harvey Fierstein’s On Tidy Endings / Safe Sex with former Egghead, CJ de Mooi, at the Tristan Bates Theatre a slightly nerve-wracking experience – particularly as, with a central role in both plays, the night seems to be set-up as a showcase for his abilities.
Thanks to the strength of Fierstein’s writing, it can be reported that de Mooi does not overly dominate the night. A long-term, and highly successful, fixture on Broadway, Fierstein wrote the book for both La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots while his Torch Song Trilogy led to two Tony’s. A long-term champion of gay rights, On Tidy Endings / Safe Sex takes a personal and mature view of the impact of AIDS in a way that is wry and heartfelt without sliding into mawkish sentimentality.
Fierstein has said that Safe Sex represents a personal response to living in the time of AIDS and the character of Gerry can be viewed as a version of the writer reflected on stage. The play is lyrical, reflective and contains a strong monologue that captures a truly human perspective of what it was like to be living through the before- and after-times of the AIDS crisis. It is at this point we can begin to appreciate the huge transition that the illness pressed onto gay men everywhere; where equality movements created momentum for change, AIDS forced the issue and, in the most negative way, pushed sexuality into the mainstream and ensured that, for better or worse, a person’s sexual identity could never be a wholly private matter.
Within the monologue, de Mooi finally relaxes into the role. He has a naturally intense presence and for the opening 20 minutes his performance is constrained by a lot of tension, which worked with the physicality but detracted from the vocals. A flat delivery that was reminiscent of line-reading and an actor prodding and pressing at the edges of a new character detracted from his performance. Ghee tells Mead that the relationship is ‘the most intense passion I have ever felt’, which one might believe from the dialogue but not from the rather one-note performance.
Reaching the monologue a transition takes place and the tension floats away with the arrival of the heightened dialogue. Indeed the mood changed so dramatically that it raised a question mark over whether the whole piece, given its reflective, personal nature, would have been better suited to being a monologue. The conversation between Mead and Ghee never really takes flight and a number of absurd character switchbacks seem to aim somewhere between Woody Allen and screwball comedy but only serve to add to the sense that Safe Sex has arrived underdone, both in writing and rehearsing.
Returning after the interval, On Tidy Endings works hard to redress the balance. By some margin the stronger of the two pieces, it is a mature and painfully accurate study of modern relationships and the contested space that is left behind (and particularly when it is from a disease that has as many pejorative markers as AIDS). It reflects on the wider dynamics that causes society to skim over the new partner in favour of maintaining the illusion of the traditional marriage model, no matter how broken it was. The conversation, primarily a two-hander,between de Mooi’s Arthur and Deena Payne’s Marion is strong, adult drama and both actors bring out the raw human emotion that runs through the writing.
De Mooi is very good as Arthur; he manages to balance on the tipping point, showing us a grieving partner forced to maintain a pretence whilst knowing that many would rather he just gracefully step into the shadows, quietly forgotten. There is volatility to the performance and if occasionally the move between anger and reconciliation seems a little jagged, it doesn’t detract from the whole. Whilst there is a slight calculating, coldness to Arthur – a shield he has created to push him through his partner’s illness – Fierstein also shows moments of true tenderness, such as talking Marion through his present collection (collected from all those places around the world visited in a doomed attempt to halt the inexorable spread of the disease). It is in these exchanges that the power of the play is held and we are shown, rather than told, the depth of the characterisation.
Payne’s Marion provides a strong emotional heartbeat to the play and is perfectly believable as the ex-wife who must negotiate her own place in the grieving process. One could argue that her relationship with her ex-husband is a little too neat and one wonders about how close to reality her seeming equanimity to her final revelation really is, but Payne carries the audience across on a wave of humanity and the reclaiming of her own personal narrative that Arthur wants to wipe away is powerful.
On Tidy Endings give us real humans dealing with real issues. On TV this may be written off as a soap opera but in theatre it is called naturalism. De Mooi and Payne give performance that do justice to the script and provide an insight into the darker, unspoken corners of modern life.
Safe Sex doesn’t work to the same level, although the performances are likely to gel over the course of the run, but it is interesting to compare and contrast the two works; the emotional lyricism of Safe Sex against the more refined, processed language of On Tidy Endings.
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