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Gay Marriage Plays hit Cherry Grove in Standing on Ceremony


                                                     By Denise Dell Harbin




Photo Caption: Standing on Ceremony cast: (front, seated, left to right) Panzi, Barbara Dowd, Gay Nathan, Tim Webster. Back row: Bob McAleavy, Dennis McConkey, Sherri Rase, Robin Cradles, Shirley Ritenour, Philip Stoehr, Director Matt Baney                              photo by Denise


On Saturday June 30, I attended the first show of Standing on Ceremony at 7:30 PM at The Arts Project in Cherry Grove. This was n anthology of 9 short plays by some well known writers on the subject of gay marriage. Director Matt Baney tagged it as a reading, yet there were a few set pieces in 2 stained glass windows designed by Dennis McConkey flanking a church type lectern and a large display of flowers. The cast was seated on directors chairs in two rows, with the rear row on a raised platform, looking like a church choir, with notebooks of script open on their laps. They remain there in the shadows while taking turns to perform.


Current APCG Homecoming Queen Robin Kradles made her usual grand entrance, and then took the stage to act as the EmCee of the evening.


First came The Revision, by Heideman Award winner Jordan Harrison, with Phil Stoehr and Bob McAleavy as gay men writing their wedding vows with each other. They struggled with many of the words in traditional marriage vows, finding them too confining for their situation.  And figured out the fine points of their relationship in the analysis of words. Nate (Phil) is a stickler for detail, and comments to Wallace (Bob) to be more accurate in defining the rules of the gay-marriage game as they currently stand. “If we’re going to be acknowledging a higher authority, I just think we should be more thorough,” he says. “Something like, ‘In the eyes of God and the ever-shifting whims of state and federal constitutional law.’ ” Yes, it is a legal no-man’s land, with the fine points being worked out with every gay marriage in the 6 states and the District of Columbia that now sanction them.


Next came This Flight Tonight by Sundance Jury Prize winner Wendy MacLeod, starring Shirley Ritenour and Barbara Dowd as a female couple on their way from LA to Iowa to get married. They both flirted with other women in the airport, but by the time they were boarding their flight, they had realized they were the one for each other, lost the “cold feet” and declared their love again. But they both hate having to be so far from home. And it is not just because one’s parents live in the Midwest, but because California repealed gay marriage after just a few months. Remember Ellen and Portia? “I wanted a wedding on a beach,” Shirley’s antsy character Annie whines. “That’s not an option in Des Moines,” Hannah (Barbara) patiently reminds her gently.


In The Gay Agenda, by Obie and Outer Critics Circle Award winner Paul Rudnick, ever popular Grove performer Panzi (Thom Hansen) played a bigoted white matron, Mary Abigail Carstairs-Sweetbuckle, explaining how she really doesn’t dislike gays, with every word telling of her contempt. She talked of her gay neighbors, Bill and Stuart, and swears she now hears a “gay voice in her head”, telling her “she could lose a few pounds”, among other criticisms. . When they visited her kitchen, they said “oh this is where Betty Crocker shot herself!” They commented on her collection of “The President’s wives plates” while she defended each suffering wife and she noted that “Satan had created gays as a craft project”. Vitriol in the suburbs! Mrs. ‘I hate gays’ told her swishy neighbors that now that every TV show seems to include a sassy gay friend, “gays were taking jobs away from black women”, showing her idea of the pecking order of society. Stuart assured her “there is no gay agenda!” We see the human face and the character flaws of all these people as well as the stereotypes. And of course, we laugh! It’s Paul Rudnick writing, after all!


On Facebook, by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award Doug Wright (Grey Gardens), had a litany of characters who fought out the gay marriage issue on a thread on the social media behemoth. Phil, Gay Nathan, Dennis McConkey, Panzi, Barbara Dowd and Matt all gave their opinions on gay marriage. At one point a comment got “Like” three times, with a thumbs up from the actors! There were gay friends, bigoted straights and everything in between. When one asked if he could use this thread as the basis for a story, most participants said “sure” but the most bigoted said “absolutely not”! When Panzi’s character defended herself as how much she loves gays, Barbara’s retorted with a “you can’t argue with a whole roll of stupid” and ‘She thinks gay depends on the ‘open minded’…she listens to the Pope!” Panzi’s retort was that she ‘can’t believe she is intolerant.” We all know these characters…they are everywhere! And in some ways it shows how silly our communication has become.


Strange Fruit by Tony Award nominee Neil LaBute (Fat Pig) told the story of two gay men (Matt Baney and Phil Stoerhr) who, over the period of a long relationship of 16 years, finally were getting married. Through simultaneous monologues, they had let us hear the ‘cute’ moments of their relationship…how they shaved together and “he got that cute little dab of shaving ream on his nose”…we knew exactly how much they were in love. They traveled to California (then the only legal venue) to say their vows…to the Hotel del Coranado in San Diego that they had seen glamorized in a film. So gay! When one went out of the hotel on a 7-11 run feeling the joy of the experience and the location, he was accosted by 3 young men near the ocean, and was killed in a gay bashing. He said “I never really saw their faces” but he does not seem sad. Just confused. The surviving partner (Phil) told of how it shook his life, and the departed (Matt) reminisced on how innocent it was…he was still in his joy. One is reminded that funerals are harder on those left behind. Their relationship was now sad and poignant, frozen forever in time. And only alive in the memories and the monologues.


And if you think of the Billie Holiday song of the same name, where black men are hanging from trees and no one does anything about it, you realize that just because civil rights are passed and now law, you cannot wipe prejudice from people’s minds. A sad and moving chapter in this anthology of plays.


Mo Gaffney contributed A Traditional Wedding, and the scene starred Shirley Ritenour and Sherri Rase. As a gay female couple, they argued about how to make their wedding traditional and yet true to their lifestyle. They coined a phrase to answer the officiant who would say you may now kiss…would it be bride? Would it be groom? What if they combined it…you may now kiss the broom! Laughter. Giggling as the gay population struggles to fit their own wants and needs into the tradition of marriage. Militant with a wide and ironic sense of humor.


Another Paul Rudnick contribution, My Husband, featured Bob McAleavy and Gay Nathan. Gay played the older Jewish mother to Bob’s gay son who was without a partner. But mother needed to show off to her friend, whose gay son had recently gotten married, and so she took out an announcement in the New York Times, with concocted details aimed for laughter. She said she had gotten Julie Tabor for the wedding planner. But what about a photo, the son asked? “I Photoshopped you in a small white bathing suit with a male model, who was wearing that same small white bathing suit.” answered Mother. Everything designed to impress! But what about her son’s true feelings?


London Mosquitoes was perhaps the most cerebral of the pieces. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman (33 Variations), and done in soliloquy by Dennis McConkey, this was perhaps the most moving of the scenes. Dennis did an excellent, unexpected performance, and it was hard to tell if his sad emotions were real or really good acting. He is mourner Joe, delivering a eulogy for his mate Paul, as he explains how we as a species have failed to evolve. He recalled how he had dated girls, then started double dating with friend Paul, and after dropping the girls off, the two men would fool around. Just fool around! Like boys do! Then one day, after about a year of this, they kissed. And it changed everything. They were then together 46 years. And when asked the secret of such a long  marriage, he answered “Have a large apartment and leave the room.” Yes, psychologically, if we could all just give our partner some room…a little space to stay “me” inside of “we”.


He explained that in the late 1800’s, mosquitoes were trapped in the tunnel for the subway in London. They evolved and after about 150 years, they could no longer mate with the previous species. He reminded the audience that AIDS had come along and caused more evolution in the gay community so that they could no longer mate with the previous human species. Well, or don’t want to! For all the “bad” of the AIDS epidemic, it gave us the “good” of females bonding to men not in a sexual way whatsoever, and to say this is how we love!

But when Joe suggested to Paul just before he died that they could now get married, Paul became irate, Joe retells. “And in a year, we’d have our first anniversary. And what would that say about the last 45 years? We were just messing around?”


Finally, Pablo and Andrew at the Alter of Words, by Obie Award winner José Rivera, was performed with great aplomb by Matt Baney and Bob McAleavy. Two very intelligent men…in the writing and in the casting…take a look at the meaning of words in a marriage. Oh, yes, the lawyers must be having a field day with gay marriage…and divorce! And at the end, the flowers will fly into the audience! So if you are single, try to catch one!


What was Tim Webster’s role? He was in kind of a mourning mother’s drag…he was not listed in the cast and at the end he simply says 3 words. He was us? No one could definitively tell me. But, he and husband David Bulock were among the first Cherry Grovers to get married. At that time, they had to go to Canada. Time changes everything!


Stagehands Martha Pitkin and Ellen Biggers moved props as needed. With Matt on the stage, Alison Brackman ran the sound with lights handled by Kathy Moroni. Arthur Cohen managed the stage. Richard Becker designed the poster and the program. The editor of Fire Island Sun, Jeannie Lieberman, helped in putting the show together by suggesting the show and helping the Arts Project get the rights. It was presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service Inc. of New York. The set of short plays was originally conceived by Brian Shnipper.


The anthology has played in New York, off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater, and in Los Angeles. Both featured rotating groups of actors. Inspired EW writer Tanner Stransky to call it “just as much a theater experience as it is a crusade to illuminate the precarious, confusing, maddening, and — yes — oftentimes hilarious position that gays and lesbians find themselves in when it comes to getting hitched legally.” The New York Post commented “You’ve won the right to wed…now comes the hard work!”


Kudos to Matt Baney and Jeannie Lieberman for bringing this to Cherry Grove, and to APCG for producing it. Panzi once told me that a play being considered was “too intelligent…no one will get it.” But I think we appealed here to a different audience…I think the audience got it, and enjoyed it. They laughed, they cried. The gay population has always taken adversity with a dose of humor…we are typecast for it, with that acerbic edge. If you missed it, look for it somewhere else. And don’t miss another show at the Arts Project! What is the worst that can happen…you get to go get ice cream after and tell your friends how you loved it or hated it…all in all a good night out anytime!


o: Wedded couple Tim Webster and David Bullock show off their wedding rings at Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays at The Arts Project in Cherry Grove 


Publisher’s note:

When I saw this play in the Village last Fall I immediately knew it had to be done in the Grove. It was perfect! Simple. Cogent. Timely. Honest.


I began the long tedious task of obtaining the rights from its owners who were overwhelmed by the huge response and legalities of producing it elsewhere.

Unfortunately, before the “deal” was completed I had to have surgery and spent a month in hospitals and 2 more till I could function well enough to resume the task. Fortunately Martha believed enough in the project to take up where I left off (there were many other projects offered for the Arts Project to accept), hired Matt and its Cherry Grove life began. And it was produced at the one year anniversary if Gay Marriage Rights, Gay Pride Week and just before Independence Day. Timing!!!


There are few times in life when a dream becomes a reality and this is one of them.

I thank you all for making it come true in such an elegant, polished production.

And, Dennis – your performance broke my heart.

                                                        Jeannie Lieberman



The Cast at post show “Wedding Reception” 

                                                Photos by Jeannie