Doric Wilson: An Eminent Outlaw

“Making magic out of nothing,” is how Doric Wilson described his 50-year devotion to the penury of alternative theater. Why am I writing about him nearly seven years after he died? I knew him slightly, admired his work and was incensed at his exclusion from a book, and confronted its author about this snub.

Published in February 2012, Eminent Outlaws is a historical survey billed as “The Gay Writers Who Changed America.” It was written by Christopher Bram, who wrote the novel on which the film Gods and Monsters is based.

Eminent Outlaws

It’s is a breezy chronicle that initially focuses on the lives and careers of Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Truman Capote. Then we’re introduced to Edward Albee, Edmund White, Larry Kramer Andrew Holleran, Tony Kushner and others in passing. In 310 pages, Mr. Bram offers a chatty and well-constructed historical panorama.

This is not an all-inclusive, definitive history. I do not include everyone of value or importance. Nor am I putting together a canon of must-read writers. I am writing a large-scale cultural narrative, and I include chiefly those authors who help me tell that story—and who offer the liveliest tales.

This preemptive, catch all defense of his subjectivity is from Bram’s introduction. It’s really a matter of, “I’m only including my favorites, so definitiveness be damned. “

When he gets to the 1960’s, he justifiably devotes much attention to Mart Crowley and the creation of his landmark play The Boys in the Band, and its monumental, 1968 Off-Broadway premiere. There is also this:

There had been a handful of gay-themed plays performed in New York, such as The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson in 1964, The Bed by Robert Heide in 1965 and his Moon in 1967, all presented at Caffe Cino. But there had never been a gay play that received as much public attention as Boys.

Undeniably, The Boys in the Band was a major event but to offer such a cursory summation of what came before it is derelict. If Caffe Cino is cited, then why not add a few sentences to describe it? If two of its writers are mentioned, why not list the other two most associated with it?

Caffe Cino was a West Village coffeehouse where plays were performed and existed from 1958 to 1968. Owned by the eccentric Joe Cino, it’s considered to be the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway theater. Books have been written about it and playwright Robert Patrick who started his career there and and is still active at 80, presents slideshow lectures about it. Mr. Patrick’s play Kennedy’s Children was performed on Broadway, but he is also not mentioned in this book.

Doric Wilson
Doric Wilson circa 2011.

In 1961, Doric Wilson had four plays produced at Caffe Cino that garnered attention, and he later became a member of the Barr/Wilder/Albee Playwright’s Unit. Mr. Wilson was an ardent gay activist and was at The Stonewall Riots in 1969, and he is featured in the PBS American Experience documentary on the subject. He supported his career in the arts in those days by working as a bartender in gay bars.

In 1974, he founded the gay theater company, The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS) that is still in existence. His 1982 play Street Theater is arguably his most accomplished work. It takes place before, during and after The Stonewall Riots and has a large cast of colorful characters, two of which are wicked parodies of characters from The Boys in the Band. Performed with environmental staging by director Mark Finley in the gay bar The Eagle, it has been revived several times in New York City to acclaim. The featured image here is of the 2015 revival of it.

Before his death in May 2011, at the age of 72, Wilson received a number of lifetime achievement awards from theatrical and literary organizations. He was alive during the writing of Eminent Outlaws and could have offered some of “the liveliest tales.”

On January 2, 2018, The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Library Book Discussion group held its monthly meeting at the LGBT Center to talk about Eminent Outlaws. It was well attended and the reaction was generally positive with the average of participants’ ratings totaling four out of five stars. I stated my overall positive opinion with reservations about the exclusions. The exciting attraction of the gathering was the appearance of Christopher Bram during the second hour. Having an author present is a rare occurrence and this was instigated by the group’s leader Howard Williams.

Mr. Bram was quite personable and was interviewed by Mr. Williams and then took questions from members. There were anecdotes pertaining to the background about the book. How it came about, the design of the cover, that it didn’t sell well and these tidbits were all informative. Williams expressed my qualms and I was then prodded to speak.

I mentioned Robert Patrick and Doric Wilson, and that I had been acquainted with Wilson and that his omission was disappointing. There was a sympathetic pause and generalizations about narrative concerns from Bram, but no actual of acknowledgment by him of Wilson. As Bram graciously agreed to show up I did not badger him and so the controversy dissipated and it was on to mother topics. Charles Busch and John “Lypsinka” Epperson do appear in the book.

Was Bram unaware of Wilson? Does he hold a low critical opinion of him? Or is it that the gay literary establishment declares him to be a non-person and won’t even confer the status of “minor figure” on him?

In 2002, the Modern Library published a new, hardcover edition of Edmund White’s novel, A Boy’s Own Story to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The LGBT Center hosted a packed book signing and talk for this occasion. I was there and when it was over as the crowd mingled, I saw Doric Wilson.

Tall, stocky, dressed all in black, with a full head of styled gray hair he was visually striking. I recognized him from his being at a recent performance of the revival of Street Theater that I had been at. Its rave reviews, positive press coverage and box office popularity had placed him in the spotlight after two decades of relative inactivity.

I went over and told him that I had seen and enjoyed his play and congratulated him on it. There were pleasantries and he gave me his card and I gave him my card. When I got home that night there was a nice email from him. We had an amiable correspondence and he invited me to Don’t Tell Mama to see the cabaret act of a friend of his. I went and there were friends of Wilson’s as well at the table.

He had a wonderful smile and laughed a lot and was often bitchy. Bitchy about Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and Edmund White. He had a palpable envy of those with bigger careers then his. He was in negotiations for transferring Street Theater to an Off-Broadway theater for a commercial run. There was momentum for this but a hitch was having to raise a good deal of money in order to pay the actors the Equity minimum salary until it took off. The transfer never happened and if it had, it would have had a major impact on his career.

During one of our chats he asked me how old I was. He obviously thought I was a good deal younger as there was an instant loss of interest in me when I replied. I was not crestfallen but amused at the shallowness. One either has to be young or useful and as I was neither the involvement faded.

Nine years later I was saddened to learn of his sudden death of a heart attack. Being on the TOSOS email list, I was notified of the estate sale of his effects and I went.

It took place at his unrenovated railroad apartment in a West 20’s tenement. One entered in the kitchen where the shower was on view and a bottle of Scotch was on the table. People were looking through his possessions in the rectangular warren of three small rooms crammed with knickknacks. His virtually all-black wardrobe hung from rods. There was a huge collection of opera recordings as he was a devotee and wrote reviews. From a trove of bootleg DVDs burned from Netflix rentals, I selected The Forsyte Saga (the original) and The Departed. The person in charge explained that as these were illegal copies they were free.

In 2015, I was assigned by Theaterscene.net to review the latest revival of Street Theater. I gave it a sincerely glowing notice and also included biographical details about Doric Wilson. I wanted to do my small part in preserving his memory.

Links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGt9kJ-62lI

http://www.tososnyc.org/

http://www.howardwill.com/BookClub.htm

http://www.theaterscene.net/plays/offbway-plays/street-theater/darryl-reilly/

http://www.amazon.com/Eminent-Outlaws-Writers-Changed-America-ebook/dp/B004QZ9P7Y/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515178141&sr=1-1&keywords=eminent+outlaws+the+gay+writers+who+changed+america

Published on Theaterscene.net January 6, 2018.

 

Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Riotous performances, inspired staging and striking design, all make this an exquisite revival of Joe Orton’s 1964 subversive, black comedy masterpiece,Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

Mr. Sloane is a sexy, muscular, 20-year-old man, who grew up in an orphanage.  He shows up at at a rundown, London house and rents a room from the slatternly, 42-year-old Kath.  After his moving in, their relationship deepens.

Kath’s elderly, poor-sighted father vaguely remembers Sloane as the possible perpetrator of a violent crime.  Her upright, single and prosperous brother Ed wants to mentor him, and more.

You know what they say about landladies?  

No, Eddie. 

They say they’d sleep with a broom handle in trousers, that’s what they say.

The dialogue is in the crisp style of Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward but twisted, and the premise is in the vein of Harold Pinter’s comedies of menace.  Orton takes these theatrical influences and carves out his own territory where the British class system and heteronormativity are skewered and where homosexuality is preferred.

Director Craig Smith’s propulsive staging gloriously renders Orton’s vision of anti-Establishment mayhem. There’s a hilarious simulated sex sequence that takes place behind a sofa.  A vicious beating has the verve of Stanley Kubrick’s “Singin’ in the Rain” violence in A Clockwork Orange, with assistance from Greg Pragel’s accomplished fight choreography.

Kissing becomes a powerful visual motif. The actors are precisely placed, and minutely pace about the stage.  Every joke uproariously lands, especially those about false teeth.  The casting is perfection.

Sloane**

The buxom Elise Stone delightfully revel’s in Kath’s dottiness and sensuality.  Ms. Stone’s raucous performance is a wonderful model of comic earthiness combined with affective, dramatic depth.

When he makes his entrance as Ed, Antonio Edwards Suarez, dressed in shades of gray, jolts the hysteria further.  With a deliberate, slow and clipped, lower-class British accent, the glowering Mr. Suarez seems like he wandered on from Pinter’s The Homecoming, which premiered the following year.  Suarez delivers Orton’s misogynistic bromides with brio. In depicting the character’s pent up lust for men, he unleashes waves of emotion with a lingering glance.  It’s a fully shaded and commanding characterization.

Sloane+

Bellowing and hobbling around on a cane, the bearded John Lenartz is marvelous as the befuddled patriarch Kemp, nicknamed “Dadda.” Mr. Lenartz adeptly shifts gears, when setting aside comedy during his one on one confrontation with Sloane.  It’s like the heroines of Night Must Fall and Sorry, Wrong Number being trapped with their tormentors due to Lenartz’s wide-eyed terror.

That this production has such an ideal Sloane puts it into the stratosphere.  With his sculpted physique, prevalent musculature and chiseled features that recall the young Malcolm MacDowell (who played the role in a 1975 London revival), Matt Baguth is mesmerizing.  Speaking in a whispery, low, lightly accented voice, Mr. Baguth commands attention.  Whether wearing Mod clothing or encased in black leather, and a tight white T-shirt, Baguth vividly captures the predatory nature of this youthful interloper with sly conviction.

The stage is set with an assortment of worn furniture and bric-a-brac that authentically presents a shabby sitting room.  Surrounding this area are mounds of stuffed, black trash bags.  These are the atmospheric features of Tony Mulanix’s terrific scenic design.

The living room’s back wall occasionally has projections of Kerem SmithStone’s eerie video design that shows the stylized locale with clouds and gritty, abstract, industrial footage.  It’s a subtle, high-tech touch.

Mr. Mulanix is also responsible for the stunning lighting design that often has striking shadows on the actor’s faces, and fluctuating brightness that intensely illuminates the actions.

Gorgeously evoking the time period is the sensational costume design of Debbi Hobson.  Sloane’s Mod apparel and iconic leather ensemble are realized with sartorial flourishes.  Ed’s gray suit could be from a British gangster film about The Krays.  Sequined high heel shoes, an orange dress, loud floral prints, brooches, and a grand coat are all part of Kath’s suitably flamboyant ensemble.  Dadda’s grimy outfit looks like it has the aroma of old age.

Ellen Mandel’s lively original music has the pop sound of the era, but it’s overused.  It borders on being a film score, rather then as incidental music for a play.  Ms. Mandel’s sound design could periodically benefit from a lower volume, as it comes close to overpowering the voices of the actors in a few places.

“I have long admired Joe Orton…These are great plays that have had a lasting influence on modern theater,” eloquently writes Smith in the program’s Director’s Notes.  Until his male lover murdered him with a hammer in 1967, at the age of 34, Orton was briefly a foremost and supreme playwright.  “He was a bloody marvelous writer,” said Harold Pinter in his eulogy.

First performed in London during the Swinging Sixties and Beatlemania, Entertaining Mr. Sloane was of the zeitgeist of sexual expression, creative fashion and a cheeky attitude toward authority.  This superb production affirms its enduring stature as a work of provocative dramatic literature.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane (through May 14, 2017)

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Photo credits: Gerry Goodstein

In 1981, I saw the monumental revival of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, at The Cherry Lane Theatre.  Besides his phenomenal performance in the title role, Maxwell Caulfield also caused a sensation for briefly appearing frontally nude.  Joseph Maher, Barbara Byrne and Gwyllum Evans were also awesome, all under John Tillenger’s dazzling direction.

Sloane Poster

 

This one of my most memorable theater experiences and it felt euphoric that this production was comparable.  It’s a great play.

In 2016, Mr. Caulfield was appearing in the creepy thriller, Tryst, at The Promenade Theatre.  I went to see it and I brought along the window card for Entertaining Mr. Sloane, that I bought at The Broadway Flea Market.

After the show, I waited outside the stage door, along with a nice sized group of fans.

I presented the poster for him to sign.

“Oh, you couldn’t have seen that!” he graciously said to me.  His eyes brightened at the sight of this memento of that long ago glory.