There was a time when any play written for a gay audience had to include an obligatory nude scene. Whether a gratuitous ploy to attract more audience members or a legitimate part of the plot, at one point almost every gay play - from Tony Kushner's AIDS themed Angels In America to Martin Sherman's Bent (a harrowing tale of gays in a Nazi concentration camp) - seemed to feature at least one character in the buff. As a young actor hungry to perform, I stripped off myself when I played Paul in a production of Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata. There are no small parts, right?
This aspect of gay theatre continues with Other People, now playing at the Tank House Theatre in Toronto. And on more than one level, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, in his role as Tan, a street kid who masturbates in public for cash, does not disappoint. While we don't actually see Tan in the process of earning his extra income, we do catch a few glimpses of him in the nude that seem neither shocking nor gratuitous. The nudity seems to unfold naturally as part of Tan's encounters with Mark (Indrit Kasapi), a former drug addict who seems to be struggling with a new-found addiction to sex.
This production of Other People boasts a great ensemble cast. Christopher Shinn's dialogue is so natural, with all its unfinished sentences and changes in thought, that I sometimes felt like an eavesdropping fly on the wall of the New York apartment of Stephen (Ben Lewis, who gives a stellar performance). With its fast pace and realistic sound effects, the play comes across as very cinematic - sort of like watching a movie interrupted by set changes.
Stephen, his ex Mark and his best friend Petra (Tatiana Maslany) share a flat in the East Village in the late 90s and are the antithesis to Chandler, Monica and the rest of the Friends gang. These are people with real pain and real problems, though we still get to laugh a little with them along the way. I saw parts of myself in all three main characters - somewhat neurotic writer Stephen, recovering "born again" drug addict Mark and exotic dancer Petra - which for me, speaks to the realness of these people and their struggles. Perhaps the fact that I have been surrounded by artists my entire life makes these characters' specific conflicts seem quite normal to me. But pain is universal. We all feel it and we all need to deal with it at some point. The characters in Other People don't have a pet monkey for distraction or an Ugly Naked Guy to make fun of, so they deal with their issues like the rest of us - by simply doing the best they can.
Other People runs until January 28th at the Tank House Theatre, Young Centre For The Performing Arts in the Distillery Historic District. Tickets by phone at 416 866 8666.