Next week, “Will & Grace” will return to network television after 11 years. So much has improved in that brief time for the LGBTQ community. It feels different to be gay today than it did just 10 or 15 years ago. And yet, there is so much to fix. Progress tends to be a marathon. We’re still running.
This is all I could think of during a performance of Donna Hoke’s new comedy “Sons & Lovers.” The production opens Buffalo United Artists’ 26th season of theater by and about members of the LGBTQ community. It is an institution in Buffalo’s queer space. I’ve seen a lot of important theater here over the years — theater that moved me, that educated me, that reflected my reality as a gay man, theater that simply made me laugh; all had great value.
But I’m puzzled by where this play sits in their curriculum, and whether it moves us forward.
The problems originate on the page. Hoke tells the story of two people: Bill, a young closeted man with a secret boyfriend; and Ellen, his unhappily married, suburbanly oppressed mother. They both struggle to accept their realities and take the leap toward truth. There is much to mine in their overlapping tropes. So many conversations about survival, secrets, trust and love that could be had — that ought to be had in this case.
But we don’t get to meet those characters, or witness those conversations. Instead, we watch them avoid one another for an hour and a half, without any intervention (or an intermission).
Ellen isn’t a hateful person; she’s not particularly conservative or religious. There’s no reason for Bill to fear her. She’s his mom. He’s her son. They gab in the kitchen. They talk about dad behind his back. Their mutual avoidance of the topic is confusing, and their eventual conversation a letdown. This recalls a time not that long ago when coming out was understood to be an automatically painful experience. For many young people, this is no longer the case.
These characters are formulas of people (as were Will Truman and Grace Adler). Bill is a musical theater performer; Ellen bakes cookies for her absentee husband. They both escape to these passions for comfort. There’s something to be said for embracing clichés as a way of reclaiming them. But plays aren’t about characters alone; those characters must act on their dilemmas. They must undergo something in order for the audience to feel invested in them.
In real life, people are entitled to express their sexual and gender identity however they want. I don’t judge Bill or Ellen for their paths. I just wish they could let us in more, to witness their struggles, to peel back the skin on their pain, to have an honest conversation before the last scene of their play.
You have to give credit to this cast, who work to make this work. (Hoke does give Ellen some hilarious lines and wicked comebacks.) Holding the ensemble together is BUA company member Caitlin Baeumler Coleman, a talented comedic actor who has played this type many times before. She delivers handily.
Steve Brachmann takes on Bill with earnestness and candor. In comparison, the six supporting characters played between David Granville and A. Peter Snodgrass are bland and distracting.
Director Todd Fuller maintains a bigness in every scene that’s hard to temper in the small Main Street Cabaret. Every nuance is amplified. Some of it plays like a comic book, and some of it like a soap opera. A quieter approach might have shaved some of Hoke’s broad strokes to a finer point. It’s all too much, and yet not enough.
The biggest problem, however, beyond the minutiae of stage direction and the tones in a writer’s style, is the fact that there are simply better contemporary stories to tell in 2017 about coming out. Ones that address the complexities of truth in this New America. Ones that look at how parenting has changed, how communication has evolved. Stories that take us somewhere new, that predict the future. We’ve been here before. Let’s not go back.
"Sons & Lovers"
2 stars (out of four)
By Donna Hoke, runs through Oct. 1 in a Buffalo United Artists production in the Main Street Cabaret, 672 Main St. Tickets are $18 to $25. Call 886-9239 or visit buffalobua.org.