There isn’t a lot of theater taking place the week before the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe (opening Sept. 1), but it’s plenty busy at the Shubin Theatre, which is hosting an involving production of Jonathan Tolins’ 2003 drama The Last Sunday in June.
Part of Quince Productions’ celebration of GayFest!, Sunday is about a group of gay men who gather in the apartment belonging to Tom (Andrew J. Tardif) and Michael (Adam Darrow) to watch New York City’s annual gay pride parade pass by on the street below (the boys’ humble abode is on Christopher Street, the epicenter of N.Y.C.’s Gayborhood).
Among the couple’s friends we meet is Brad (Jonathan Steadman), a writer for Entertainment Weekly and a notorious flirt, the youthful wannabe actor Joe (Cameron Munson), and the elder statesman of the group Charles (Peter Haas), an opera queen trying to stay alluring as he creeps inexorably toward middle age.
If you are in the queer urban community or hang out with it, the characters are as recognizable as the topics they discuss, at least initially. Early in the play, Tolins keeps the tone light with a lot of banter about “body guys” who live at the gym, the bar scene, opera, musical and gay theater, and various celebrities they find sexually appealing (including one funny segment where the guys voice their opinions on which member of the O.J. Simpson trial they’d most like to bed). However, when Tom’s ex, James (Peter Zielinski in an intriguing portrayal), shows up, the play adopts a more serious tone. “I hate gay pride day. It makes me feel ugly and mean,” Michael announces with more than a hint of self-loathing. “Aren’t we supposed to feel fabulous?”
The performances, directed by Josh Hitchens, range from the good to the excellent. The real star of Sunday, though, is Hitchens’ direction. Not only does he coax assured performances from a mostly young, inexperienced cast, his understated, quiet approach serves both the material and the setting nicely. The Shubin is one of the area’s smallest venues, and Hitchens’ intimate staging allows the audience to connect with the characters and become fully invested in their story.
Tolins’ play is at times reminiscent of the 1968 groundbreaking drama The Boys in the Band. In Sunday, however, it’s 2003 and a lot has transpired in 35 years (the Stonewall riots, AIDS, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). Marriage equality hasn’t yet been realized, but that hasen’t stopped Tom and Michael, who at the play’s outset are preparing to purchase a home in a well-manicured suburb and settle down to a life of domestic bliss.
Tolins’ play isn’t perfect. With the exception of James and Susan, the characters are more types than fully drawn individuals, and the play’s attempts at metatheatre (Charles regularly expresses that he and his friends’ activities could be in a gay play) is unnecessary and poorly managed. Nevertheless, Tolins’ exploration of community and gay identity are well-considered. Sunday raises provocative questions about a community that (in his view) puts a premium on youth and physical beauty. More importantly, he asks what it means to be gay, or to paraphrase one character, is being gay determined by who I sleep with or my record collection? As America becomes more comfortable with different sexual orientations, Tolins suggests the greater challenge for gay men may be accepting themselves.
If the packed house at the performance I attended is any indication, theatergoers are eager to embrace the LGBT theater that—with few exceptions—the city’s larger companies have long ignored.
Through Aug. 28. $15-$25. Shubin Theatre. 407 Bainbridge St. 215.627.1088. quinceproductions.com
Calendar: Sept. 2-9