Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
I must begin this review by making it very clear that, due to a very busy schedule, I attended the full dress rehearsal of this production. As a result, there was no audience and the set was not finished. Regular readers know that I consider the audience to be an important “actor” in any production I attend, and not having one makes a big difference to me and to the performers.
Theatre people are a very superstitious lot, and a popular belief is that a bad dress rehearsal ensures a good opening night. If this theory is true, and I have personally seen it go both ways, inviting a critic to the dress rehearsal is suicide. The rehearsal I saw was not quite ready for prime time. The show ran about 45 minutes long and the actors’ energy seemed low. Those conditions could not and I hope did not exist on opening night and subsequent performances.
But beyond the circumstances under which I saw it, I have big problems with “The Twilight of the Golds” itself. Written in the early 1990’s by Jonathan Tolins, a gay man then in his mid-twenties, and it is very obviously the work of a young, gay man. I would be fascinated to hear what Tolins thinks of the play himself, now that he is 40, particularly if he has subsequently had any experience as a parent or playing a nurturing role in a child’s life.
I did not live in New York City during the 1990’s but I was born and raised there and I cannot remember it being a dangerous or difficult place for gay people. Of course there has always been and will always be prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes all over the world, but in general big cities are more live-and-let-live. Granted AIDS was a much bigger issue then than it is now (and I am not at all sure why that is or whether that perception reflects reality) but none of the characters has AIDS and that is not the “problem” with which the child will be born.
The play tells the story of a New York Jewish American family named Gold: Phyllis (Carolyn Maroney) and Walter (Edward Fennell and their grown children David (Kevin McCarthy) and Suzanne (Valerie Portanova). David is gay and lives with his partner Steve. Suzanne is married to a research scientist named Rob Stein (Steve Henel). Rob works in a genetics lab where they have perfected testing that can tell many things about a fetus in utero, including its sexual preference.
Of course, this is impossible in the real world. We do not know if sexual preference is a genetic condition – only that it seems to be “hard-wired” into people from a very early age. Suzanne gets pregnant and, guess what? the tests show that the baby will be a healthy, left-handed, gay boy. This is where the play shows its age. Rob and Suzanne decide to terminate the pregnancy rather than face the challenge of raising an “abnormal” child.
I obviously see the world through the lens of my own experience. I am a straight, 50-year-old WASP woman, married to my one and only husband for nearly 26 years now and the mother of two straight sons. I am pro-choice, but I have never personally terminated a pregnancy and I am not sure I would choose to unless it was really a life and death situation. However I have been at the side of friends and relatives who have chosen to have abortions, and I can tell you this: It is NEVER an easy choice and it is a decision you live with for the rest of your life physically and emotionally.
Tolins repeatedly has other characters accuse Suzanne of taking the “easy way out” by choosing to terminate, and then he punishes her for her choice to destroy a gay life by having her have a hysterectomy (due to “complications” from a very late term abortion) and lose all hope of every bearing another child. I understand that the 1996 made-for-TV-movie version has a different ending, which makes me think that Tolins was already reconsidering his treatment of Suzanne’s character and decision back then. But given the 1993 stage version I am writing about, I have to say that I found his treatment of women patently offensive.
Suzanne’s mother Phyllis fares slightly better. She is portrayed as loving and much more open-minded about David’s sexuality than her husband, but Tolins afflicts her with every stereotype of Jewish womanhood and motherhood. I do not know Tolins’ religious upbringing, but making the family Jewish was certainly a wise choice theatrically because of the importance Jews place on family and heredity. The tragedy for a Jewish family having a gay child is not any shame or sin placed on the sexual orientation but the fact that the child will not be able to reproduce. Once Suzanne is sterilized by her choice, this particular branch of the Gold family is doomed to biological extinction.
Just to keep the stereotype train chugging along, David embodies many clichés about gay men. He loves musical comedy as a boy, and then opera as a man, ending up as a scenic designer for the Metropolitan Opera and forcing expensive boxed CDs sets of operatic recordings on Suzanne and Rob, who, being both straight and scientifically inclined, stereotypically have no interest. I nearly gagged when Tolins had David tell Suzanne to keep the CDs for her son who would be sure to enjoy them. While we may someday discover that sexual preference is genetic, I am certain we will NEVER make a similar discovery about musical preferences. Tolins has an awful lot of people making an awful lot of assumptions about who people are or will be based on labels.
I think that Tolins intended the character of David to be played much more flamboyantly than director Neilson R. Jones has Kevin McCarthy do it here. Frankly, other than the fact David says he’s gay, and that tell-tale passion for theatre music, he struck me the way most of the real-life gay people I know strike me, as an average normal human being. When Rob ominously told Suzanne that the baby was going to be “like David” my first thought was, “What? He’s going wear nice sweaters?” This prediction and the family’s reaction to it would make far more sense if David was overtly effeminate or embodied his sexuality in ways that made him look or sound distinctly different from “the norm.”
Maroney is head and shoulders above the rest of the cast in talent, experience, and skill. Talent is another one of those pesky traits that humans may or may not be born with. Talented parents are no more likely to have talented children than gay parents are to have gay children. But even God-given talent must be motivated and cultivated by desire, study, and hard work if it is to amount to anything. Maroney has put in her years in the trenches and has honed her skills well.
Portanova is young to be playing Suzanne, but she shows signs of that desire and willingness to work and learn that will bring her along nicely as a performer. She worked hard in a difficult and ultimately unsympathetic role. A chat with a woman who has had a hysterectomy or even a C-section would help her localize the physical pain she needs to enact in the last scenes.
Henel was also trying hard, but I am not sure that Rob is a character who can be played convincingly by a human. Perhaps casting Robbie the Robot would work better than asking a flesh-and-blood actor to portray such an impossibly bloodless role. Again, this is where I see Tolins’ youth showing through in the writing. I have known men with no paternal feelings, and while they are more common than women utterly lacking in maternal instinct, they are still few and far between. Men at least usually feel a sense of territory and ownership over their pregnant wives and unborn children, if not genuine affection. Rob is the creation of a young man who has never even imagined impending fatherhood, and the creation of a man who believes and feels angry that his sexual preference will prevent him from ever experiencing it.
McCarthy’s performance as David was flat and unaffected for the most part, until he suddenly erupted in anger a couple of times. He is not helped by Jones’ direction which has him sitting still most of the time. And Fennell, a theatrical neophyte, is completely at sea in what is actually a fairly straight forward role – that of the typical 1950’s stereotype father who lives in a world utterly disconnected from that of his wife and children, although he loves them very much.
The bits of the set, designed by Rohit Kapoor, that I did see in action were very attractive, my first instinct was that I liked them very much. The playwright describes them as pages 33-35 of the Ikea catalog, and this was a reasonable approximation. The look is sterile in that up-scale nobody-really-lives-here way that suits Suzanne and Rob’s lifestyle. While they have fleeting moments of romance and passion, and obviously maintain a sex life capable of producing off-spring, they are at heart very clinical and scientific people, the type whose incredibly orderly existence would be thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a child of any type.
The Confetti Stage, Inc. production of The Twilight of the Golds runs June 14-16 & 21-23 at 8 p.m. and June 17 & 24 at 2 p.m., at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, 265 River Street in Troy, NY. The show is advertised as running two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. This is a controversial play which deals with issues of parental love very frightening to young children. I would recommend this one for ages 16 and up. Details and on-line ticket purchases are available at www.confettistage.com. Reservations are highly recommended.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007