Gallows Humor 

Twenty-five years after Chicago's first sparsely attended, little-noticed gay-pride parade celebrating the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, June has turned into a monthlong festival of gay and lesbian awareness--and nowhere more than in the theater scene, whose support of gay material has been strengthened rather than weakened by the AIDS epidemic and its political fallout. Troupes that program gay material year-round, like Bailiwick Repertory and Zebra Crossing, mount special pride series, while other companies (including some formed for one-time efforts) trot out a slew of plays about coming out, dealing with parents, fighting AIDS, etc. Three Tall Women, Jest a Second!, Patient A, Lesbian Bathhouse, Jerker, the gay-pride edition of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind--the list goes on and on. Even the month's big road-show musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman, was a gay love story; even Second City did its first-ever gay-pride show last week.

And then there's Steppenwolf Theatre's Uncle Bob--a dark comedy about an AIDS suicide pact between two closeted homosexuals, with incest thrown in for good measure.

The play's perverse protagonists epitomize two of the most perplexing types to emerge during the AIDS epidemic: the married closet cases who eschew safe-sex precautions and so bring the virus home to their families, and the promiscuous Gen-Xers who came of age surrounded by the disease but seem oblivious to it. Bob is a middle-aged Manhattanite whose wife has left him to die alone; a failed writer and actor, he sponges off his businessman brother (who lives somewhere in the midwest) while alternately reminiscing about and sneering at his own squandered potential in literature (his main talent was imitating writers like Hemingway and James) and drama (he's especially proud of his darkly revisionist Harvey, which emphasized the hero's alcoholism). Unexpectedly intruding on Bob's isolation is his brother's boy Josh, a grungy college dropout with a Tim McVeigh crew cut and a history of self-destructive recklessness. Angry that his "married faggot" uncle "took it up the ass," Josh insists that the thought of gay sex "makes me retch"--likely evidence of his own latent homosexuality. Yet he never acknowledges it even at the play's improbable climax, when he offers his sexual companionship to the uncle he knows has lusted for him since childhood--deliberately inviting HIV infection as part of the deal.

Showing the link between homosexual self-denial and self-hate, Uncle Bob is a play whose most important words are the ones never spoken. Josh and Bob each rejects the other's accusation that he's gay, meanwhile wallowing in angry self-recrimination at the meaninglessness of existence in general and his own life in particular. After an hour and a half of bitter sniping, the pair's arrival at an unsafe sexual relationship gives them both a reason to live. This tale of internalized homophobia and existential angst comes off as something Jesse Helms might write: a portrait of pathological passion, trivializing and demonizing rather than poetically elevating the diseases--AIDS and self-hate--it depicts.

But the problem with Uncle Bob is one of dramatic credibility, not political correctness. Whatever positive implications the script might convey are fatally compromised by its manipulative structure and its reduction of illness to a playwright's conceit. Actor-author Austin Pendleton's bitchy, literate script is packed with razor-sharp barbs worthy of early-60s Edward Albee. But while its viciously cutting gallows humor produces considerable laughter--until the increasingly repellent plot sacrifices the audience's sympathy--the verbal sparring never seems like the spontaneous interaction of two real people. Similarly calculated are the escalating explosions of physical violence: this is the kind of play where, when a character enters carrying a porcelain coffee cup, you know he'll smash it in anger--then cut himself sweeping up the pieces, the better to show off some stage blood.

Though he's still a fledgling playwright with only one previous script to his credit, Pendleton is a theater veteran as actor (including Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad) and director (Elizabeth Taylor's Broadway revival of The Little Foxes); here he's constructed an exercise in scenery-chewing showmanship that emphasizes strong individual moments at the expense of overall credibility. With his pinched, petulant, high-pitched voice and cannily eccentric comic timing, he can be an extremely effective performer or an extremely affected one; here he's both. From the play's riveting first scene--a ten-minute confessional in which Bob addresses a half-open door, wrongly assuming that his estranged wife is on the other side--until the contrived climax, Pendleton is almost hypnotically watchable, and his slightly hesitant delivery of Bob's self-doubting dialogue is often delicious. ("Each minute that you're here makes me happier that I'm dying. And I don't mean that as an insult," Bob tells Josh in a typical exchange.) But he doesn't probe the emotional depths that would make the play's improbable ending meaningful or moving. Adam Sumner Stein as Josh, repeating the role he created in the play's New York premiere, is a hyper grab bag of repressed emotions, bristling with confused alienation that he covers with a charmingly wicked smile. If Josh's periodic bursts of anger lead Stein into increasingly predictable vocal cadences--edgily soft-spoken phrases punctuated by single shouted words--the problem lies more with the script than the actor; as Pendleton's strange but intriguing premise spirals out of control, his characters more and more become vehicles for acting technique rather than real feeling.

Despite well-written sequences and Kelly Morgan's well-paced direction, Uncle Bob doesn't work. "I don't believe this," says Josh as he realizes where he and Uncle Bob are heading. "Neither do I," responds Uncle Bob. Nor should they; neither does the audience.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.


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