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Theatre in Review: Alternating Currents/217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous

Two new plays explore, in very different ways, the intersection of private lives and political concerns. Alternating Currents draws its inspiration from a distinctive feature of New York life, Electchester, the complex erected in Queens to provide affordable housing for members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. As Adam Kraar's script reveals, Electchester, which was established in 1949, was envisioned as a total community, complete with a tavern, bowling alley, union hall, and medical facility. A relic of a time when unions still wielded power in America, it was a communitarian dream village, and even today -- unlike, say, some of the co-ops built in Manhattan by the garment workers' union -- a majority of the inhabitants are electricians or their family members.

Alternating Currents, which often seems more interested in providing tidbits about Electchester than working up anything like drama, centers on a contemporary couple, Elena and Luke; young electricians in love, they decide to ditch their constantly flooded Manhattan apartment for the opportunity to live among their fellow union members. At first, Luke is the one pushing for the move, insisting that they need a real home in which to begin their married life. Looking the place over, Elena is worried about the ulterior displays of community spirit and the seemingly endless round of activities; suspecting that moving in is like joining a cult, she asks, "Don't you find it weird that everybody's like, 'We love it here. It's great. The streets are paved with gold'?" Luke replies, "Don't you think if you paid nine hundred bucks for a one bedroom, you'd talk like that, too?"

Just try to find a New Yorker who'll disagree with that logic. Elena concedes, and, before they've unpacked a single box they are inundated with friendly visitors bearing gifts of food and hoping to sign them up for various committees. It isn't long before the situation reverses itself: Elena becomes the busiest woman in Electchester, filling her free time with volunteer work. Luke feels neglected, and, as a black man, he begins to notice indications of casual racism among his neighbors. He also starts delving into Electchester's sometimes-fraught history with Pomonk, the public housing development located across the street, which, according to some of the locals, has degenerated into a cesspool of crime -- or is this an example of white people speaking in code? Soon, it looks like the new home that was meant to seal Luke and Elena's relationship might be the wedge that drives them apart.

Not that their marital problems are especially compelling. For, as conceived by Kraar, Elena and Luke are the blandest of ingenues, doomed to play second fiddle to a lively cast of supporting characters. Indeed, their troubles are barely dramatized; the playwright has opted for a jigsaw puzzle structure, needlessly jumping back and forth in time, with scads of unnecessary narration caulking up the empty spaces between scenes. It's as if, having the raised the possibility that all might not be well at Electchester, nobody involved really wanted to probe too deeply.

Under Kareem Fahmy's direction, Jason Bowen and Liba Vaynberg make an affable pair of young lovers, but they have so little to work with that their problems never seem real. (Elena, we learn, grew up the daughter of a business executive and worked her way through numerous failed careers before finding meaning in electrical work; it's an interesting point, but Kraar never takes it further.) Most of what Alternating Currents has to offer comes from Robert Arcaro as Sal, Electchester's boisterous unofficial mayor; Rheaume Crenshaw as both Elena's skeptical colleague and Luke's adolescent nephew; and Antoinette LaVecchia as a buttinsky neighbor and a bitter librarian, whose angry views on affirmative action set Luke's ears burning. Brian Sgambati is a likable performer, but as the evening's emcee he has a thankless task; more than once I wished he would just zip it and let everyone else get on with the play.

Alternating Currents, a production of the Working Theater, opened at Urban Stages but will tour the five boroughs; it has an inventive set by David Esler that surrounds the cast with a serpentine network of pipes and tubes, each of them ending in a lightbulb. This arrangement also contains a number of important props, including signs, clocks, the IBEW logo, and a tiny Christmas tree. Scott Bolman's lighting creates a number of atmospheres, including a warm bar interior, that establish a strong sense of place. Dina El-Aziz's costumes are solid, and Lawrence Schober's sound design delivers an array of effects, including tap shoes, a shorting electric circuit, birdsong, that earworm music that comes out of every Mr. Softee truck, and Starship, singing "We Built This City." This is a good-natured piece -- and the city's legacy of union-sponsored housing is a fascinating topic -- but it is weighed down by a dreary, sketchily realized marital drama. "Electchester's a strange place. But it ain't a bad place," one of the characters notes. Actually, it's a pretty dull place.

In contrast, the subject of 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous is a true hero who put his career on the line to end a terrible injustice. In 1972, Dr. John E. Fryer appeared -- outfitted in a rubber mask, wig, and tuxedo -- on a panel titled Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to the Homosexual?: A Dialogue at the 1972 American Psychiatric Association conference. Calling himself Dr. Henry Anonymous, he made an irrefutable case that closeted doctors were doing little good for their gay patients, who, rather than being treated as diseased, should be helped to understand and accept their orientations. Fryer, who earlier had lost a residency over accusations about his sexuality, understood the risk, but he was determined to make a difference, and so he did: Within a year, homosexuality was dropped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Ain Gordon's play is a kind of portrait in triplicate, assembled from three monologues by real-life figures, each of whom, in different ways, were closely involved in Fryer's life. (The boxes of the title refer to Fryer's archive at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.) First up is Alfred A. Gross, who ran a foundation that aided young gay men who found themselves in legal difficulties, and who, in 1965, contacted Fryer about offering testimony on behalf of his clients. This gets the play off on the wrong foot, because, as written, and as played by Derek Lucci, Gross is a caricature of what the script calls a "high-swish" queen, with a sense of humor that is warmed-over Mart Crowley ("Oppression made me spectacular!") and a strained, artificial manner that quickly becomes grating. Still, even here, we learn what was at stake. Noting that "no doctor could be seen as one of us," Gross reveals the elaborately coded letter he sent to Fryer, referring only to "our problem" and giving him every opportunity to deny the reference.

And the monologue ends in a clarifying burst of fury in which Gross grouses, "I know some, some young ones here may say we stopped too short. Men helping men. White men helping white men," and powerfully argues how he and others like him were making it up as they went along, with no shared history or role models. "Our vision is what enables you to now see where we were shortsighted," he insists, all but daring someone to contradict him.

Next up -- and much more interesting -- is Katherine M. Luder, a legal secretary who, at sixty-seven, was suddenly let go from her job, and, on a whim, responded to an ad placed by Fryer, who became her employer for the next twenty-four years. She's an eccentric, outspoken character with a personal style that might be called Goodwill Chic: She notes that when the "thrift ladies" at the used clothing shops notice her eyeing an article, "they always say, 'Not everyone could wear that, dear.' They mean no one should. So, I buy it. Do not dare me."

That last line bristles with a most amusing menace because it is delivered by Laura Esterman, who specializes in a kind of scattered caprice stretched over a steel-trap logic matched with a deadly eye for hypocrisy. (At first glance, the toothpick-thin actress seems like a little bird; on second thought, she might be a bird of prey.) She recounts her quarter-century spent in a fraught intimacy that, in retrospect, remains unclassifiable. "Never your old maid with her lonely homosexual," she says. "Never our last resort, we were our blessed invention." In her most penetrating passage, she recalls how more and more of Fryer's patients seemed to be wasting away, and then disappearing altogether. Confronting him about this, he fills her in on the AIDS epidemic. It is still early days, and nobody yet knows how it is transmitted, and he gives her a choice: She can stay on and come in close contact with the sick and dying, or she can leave, no judgments made, no questions asked. In a tone of outrage mixed with the admiration of the outfoxed, she says, "How dare this man, Dr Fryer, force me, me, to risk either my body -- or my soul?"

The most moving contribution comes from Ken Marks, as Fryer's father, Ercel Fryer. Noting that by the time of the APA conference he was already dead, he recalls Fryer's not especially happy childhood in 1930s and '40s Kentucky. The kind of boy who stuck out, he was close to his mother; the father-son relationship was impeded partly by the young man's obvious difference and partly by the fact that, as a man of his time and place, Ercel hadn't the faintest idea how to express his love. And yet it falls to him to tell the story of his son's most courageous moment, when, speaking into a distorting mic to further hide his identity, he laid out his dilemma, and that of his many gay colleagues, with devastating precision. Describing the many ways his career could be hurt if the truth about him were known, he added, "We are taking an even bigger risk, however, in not living fully our humanity, with all of the lessons it has to teach all the other humans around us. This is the greatest loss, our honest humanity, and that loss leads all those others around us to lose that little bit of their humanity as well." The father's obvious pride in his son is easily the most heartbreaking thing in 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous, along with his assertion that his son's courage was especially impressive because it wasn't native to him.

Despite one problematic performance and occasional excesses in writing, Gordon has done a most valuable thing in resurrecting Fryer's story and refracting it through the views of these three narrators. The production is sleek-looking, with an uncredited set design featuring carefully aligned rows of Fryer's archive boxes, and a lighting and projection design by Nick Ryckert that includes photos of the APA talk and brief archival footage of John Fryer on a serious-looking television talk show. Alfred Gross was right: Without men like Fryer, we might all have been in a very different -- and terribly unpleasant -- place today. 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous runs only through May 11 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center; it deserves a much longer run. -- David Barbour

(9 May 2018)

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