One thing is clear: This year’s Presidential campaign has been marked by an excess of privilege, an echo chamber of multi-dimensional hate (racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia), and a clown car of smug, unqualified, and supremely ignorant Republican candidates determined to inflict their religious ideology on America’s cultural melting pot. Driven by hubris and their lust for dominance, these people have armed themselves with so much misinformation that they have no idea how toxic their influence has been on the voting population. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines affluenza as:
“The unhealthy and unwelcome psychological and social effects of affluence regarded especially as a widespread societal problem ― extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships.”
Although wealth and political power can often be used to protect some people from childhood insecurities and inconvenient truths, it’s easier than most people imagine to wrest control of the narrative from their terrified hands. All it takes is a little bit of research to find the critical faults in their fragile manifestos.
While sycophants feed overweaning narcissism by telling people what they really want to hear (as opposed to what they really need to hear), investigating a person’s backstory can lead to the discovery of their Achilles’ heel. Mel Brooks has spent decades mocking Adolf Hitler as a way of robbing Nazism of its cultural power. John Oliver did a beautiful job of devaluing the Trump empire’s brand by revealing that the Republican candidate’s former family name was Drumpf.
Tightly held secrets often resist the determined compartmentalizing efforts of control freaks. In some instances, the emotional damage can be kept to a minimum. In others, it can be too hurtful to accept. Bottom line: The person who has everything may not have peace of mind.
Nick Corporon’s beautiful new film, Retake (which received its world premiere from the 2016 Frameline Film Festival) is a case in point. A small indie film that slowly disarms a control freak’s meticulously constructed sense of privilege and power, its story pits a handsome, healthy, well-educated gay man against an impoverished male prostitute with stronger survival skills and an abundance of street smarts.
Upon his arrival in San Francisco, Jonathan (Tuc Watkins) is a gay man with a mission: intent on a hiring a hustler who can help him live out a carefully-delineated fantasy. His audition process has been meticulously planned. The young man is to spray his body with a favored cologne and, if necessary, don a brunette wig. A soulless, peremptory fuck will determine if Jonathan has found someone who can act “a bit temperamental and rough around the edges.” A younger man who Jonathan can “fix.”
The first hustler he picks up, Scotty (Kit Williamson), proves to be crass, utterly lacking in subtlety, and an obvious mismatch. His second hookup (Devon Graye) is much better tailored to Jonathan’s plan to accompany him on a road trip to the Grand Canyon. The hustler will be paid double his nightly rate and receive a $1,000 bonus at the end of the trip. Needless to say, Jonathan (who is obviously into role-playing) has developed a strict set of ground rules.
- The hustler must pretend to be someone named “Brandon” for the entire length of the trip.
- The hustler must obey all of Jonathan’s orders.
- The hustler must never ask Jonathan any personal questions.
For a lonely young man who was kicked out of his home as soon as his parents learned that he was interested in sucking cock, Jonathan’s offer is a no-brainer. It offers food, drink, and several nights in a clean bed. The only problem is that the new “Brandon” is a whole lot smarter than he looks and far more intuitive than Jonathan might ever become.
Thus, Retake becomes a very different kind of road trip adventure in which there is a slow but steady transfer of power between the two men based on the amount of information “Brandon” is able to glean from various sources. Each day “Brandon” awakes to a new set of clothing that has been laid out for him before Jonathan left their motel room to get some coffee. Each night the sex becomes less mechanical and more tender.
The hustler quickly realizes that Jonathan is a fearfully lonely man wrestling with a broken heart who is trying to relive the final days of a previous failed relationship in a precision-driven laboratory experiment that includes taking Polaroid photos of the new “Brandon” in seemingly insignificant poses.
Whereas Jonathan has a well-toned body, money to spare, and thinks he can control the situation simply because he’s paying the young man for his time, the sad truth is that he’s an emotional train wreck who does not like to be told when he’s acting like a real asshole. The irony, of course, is that the hustler (who has learned how to reinvent himself for each new trick) holds the key to ending Jonathan’s emotional mummification.
Viewers won’t hear any chirpy renditions of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Getting To Know You” as Jonathan and “Brandon” travel down the lonely highways leading toward the Grand Canyon. Instead, they’ll witness a slowly-paced attempt at role-playing mixed with the subversively intellectual seduction of two emotionally damaged men where one has a traditional masculine need to be in control and the other has nothing left to lose.
I first became aware of Tuc Watkins when he was playing Malcolm Laffley on the exquisitely written, beautifully acted, and deliciously directed TV series entitled Beggars and Choosers (which Showtime cancelled after two seasons due to poor ratings). Since then, he has always struck me as an actor whose physical beauty provides an appealing gateway into a rare depth of internal acting and sensitive characterization. Devon Graye offers a shrewd counterweight as a young man who lacks the financial security and professional power that Jonathan has acquired, but has the mental agility to play along with the older man’s scenario until the moment when he needs to wrestle the reins from his client’s grip and take control of the situation.
One evening, as the two men are enjoying a late night kiss during a nude dip in their motel’s swimming pool, they are joined by an interracial couple (played by Sydelle Noel and Derek Phillips) who make no judgments about their relationship. When the two couples next encounter each other in a bar, many shots are consumed, Jonathan lets down his guard far enough to get up and dance, but the following morning he can remember nothing about what happened.
Corporon’s film never rushes the narrative, allowing Jonathan and his hustler to slowly learn how to accommodate each other’s needs. Beautifully acted and directed with great sensitivity to the tortured souls trapped inside many gay men, Retake portrays a sex worker as the real adult in the room (rather than a predator or the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold). Here’s the trailer.
On rare occasions, an audience’s perception of a play can change dramatically over a period of time. When John Guare’s dramedy, Six Degrees of Separation, premiered on May 16, 1990 (with a cast headed by John Cunningham, Stockard Channing, and James McDaniel), the jokes in the script delivered the intended laughs. However, the thought that a young African-American con man could so easily infiltrate an upscale circle of friends by pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son was taken seriously as a warning about how trusting and gullible some people can be.
Guare’s play ran for 485 performances and became a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1993, a film adaptation was released starring Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and Will Smith, with Ian McKellan as Geoffrey Miller and Kitty Carlisle, J.J. Abrams, and Anthony Rapp cast in supporting roles.
The Custom Made Theatre recently unveiled a new production of Six Degrees of Separation directed by Stuart Bousel on a unit set designed by Ryan Martin. While the action still takes place in New York in 1990, the audience’s reaction to the play was noticeably different on opening night.
- In many scenes, Guare’s drama (based on a real-life story) was treated as a comedy about the naiveté of social elites who know how to wheel and deal in order to secure a $2 million investment in a painting by Cézanne but can barely negotiate a conversation with their own children.
- There was a noticeable lack of shock that a lonely, amoral gay man who had been ignored by a group of “cool kids” during his college years could be so willing to divulge their family backgrounds to a con man in exchange for a steady supply of black cock.
- When the wealthy victims attempt to report what has happened to the police, they are stunned to discover that, because they had (a) given the con man the keys to their apartment and (b) he had not stolen anything from them, they lacked any grounds to press charges. A cynical audience found this quite amusing.
With all due respect to the six degrees of separation theory originally explained in 1929 by Frigyes Karinthy, what changed that caused today’s tech-savvy audience to react so differently to Guare’s play than an audience might have in 1990?
- In 1991, AOL for DOS was launched; the following year AOL for Windows was released.
- In 1995, Yahoo! made its debut as a powerful Internet search engine.
- Early in 2004, Facebook debuted on the Internet. By the first quarter of 2016, the company had 1.65 billion monthly active users.
- In August of 2004, when Google had its hugely successful IPO, its stated mission was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
- Launched in July of 2006, by the first quarter of 2016 Twitter boasted an average of 310 million monthly active users.
- In 2011, AOL purchased The Huffington Post as part of its plan to reposition itself as a digital media company.
With the maturation of the Internet and the increasing use of social media, it’s now much more possible to track a person’s six degrees of separation from another human. As a result, the audience for Custom Made Theatre’s production has a much deeper understanding of how the world has grown more interconnected than Guare’s characters could ever have imagined in 1990.
The production benefitted from Matt Weimer’s portrayal of the art dealer Flan Kittredge, Genevieve Perdue’s touching portrayal of his well-intentioned wife, Ouisa, Carl Lucania’s work as their South African friend, Geoffrey, and Karl Schackne’s appearance as the overly trusting Dr. Fine. Kyle Goldman drew laughs doubling as both an aggressive hustler and Flan and Ouisa’s son.
While Sam Bertken and Alisha Ehrlich had a wistful appeal as the trusting young couple so easily hoodwinked by Khary Moye’s subtly manipulative Paul, it was Richard Sargent’s characterization of Trent that brought a touch of gritty reality to the story. Bottom line: People can usually be trusted to hear what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.