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Theater Review - Watching the parade

The Last Sunday in June

Throughout The Last Sunday in June at Actor's Express, a group of gay New Yorkers reveal the key to successful relationships: "It's all about getting your needs met." As the line becomes an oft-repeated refrain, the audience becomes a little suspicious of it.

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Like Woody Allen's "The heart wants what it wants," it's so simple and sensible that it seems a little too easy, an untrustworthy rule for something as complex as love and sex. And since the play's characters seem to have trouble meeting their needs for any period of time longer than a weekend, the credo seems flawed from the start.

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But in Actor's Express' breezy production of The Last Sunday in June, playwright Jonathan Tolins' treatment of relationships lends some substance to a show that could easily be frivolous fun.

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The play takes place in what could be a stronghold of monogamous domestic bliss, a stylish Christopher Street apartment shared by schoolteacher Michael (Matthew Myers) and lawyer Tom (Cary Donaldson). On the date that gives the play its title, the annual gay pride parade marches past their windows, but Michael would rather go to Pottery Barn than make a show of community solidarity. His shopping plans get foiled when friends visit to watch the parade and comment on, say, exhibitionists in thongs or the lesbian "Sapphic traffic."

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The public spectacle beyond the window and the disparate personalities within the apartment provide a tidy setup for a stage play. It's so tidy, in fact, that Tolins repeatedly talks about how the gathering would make a great "gay play," a genre that may only be a few decades old, spanning from The Boys in the Band to Love! Valour! Compassion! to this, yet already has become as familiar and ritualized as ancient Greek theater. Michael and Tom's friends comment on the action by pointing out moments such as, "The unexpected arrival of the shirtless hunk" (Jacob Wood), then theorize that he would be on the play's poster.

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In the hands of a cerebral writer like Tom Stoppard, such a meta-theatrical device would make you question the artifice and playacting within the lives of the characters. In The Last Sunday in June, it seems more like the playwright felt self-conscious about his script's clichés, so he decided to incorporate them into the text: Joe (Christopher Skinner) is the young, idealistic one; Brad (Hunter Hanger) is the quippy, queeny one; and so on. Given the gags tend to be fairly clever while sounding like a game these guys would actually play, the gimmick justifies itself.

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In perhaps the most amusing moment, Brad turns on a deluxe juicer to signal whenever somebody's lying. For instance, Tom declares that he and Mike, despite being on the verge of moving to the suburbs, "reject straight, middle-class values." Whirrrr!

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The Last Sunday in June scrutinizes the gay community at a crossroads. It's moved past the pre-Stonewall closet era, although the older friend Charles (Bill Murphey) speaks up for the hard-fought freedoms that young guys like Joe take for granted. It's even moved past the major period of AIDS activism, although one of the characters is secretly sick and poignantly declares, "I feel like I'm back in the closet again."

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The play also delves into how the gay community should define itself culturally. "How many tortured coming-out stories can we read?" In the larger question, should gay people embrace hedonism or emulate the stability of straight couples? Which path is more politically correct, and which provides greater personal happiness?

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These questions undermine Michael and Tom's seemingly contented relationship, and when problems emerge, the actors' early casual comfort with each other pays off. Donaldson starts closing off Tom's nice-guy "open" demeanor, while Myers' early snarky behavior gives way to moving desperation.

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Mostly the play features upbeat conversations, but a figurative ghost crashes the banquet in the presence of James (Adam Fristoe), Tom's college boyfriend and a brooding, failed novelist who announces his impending wedding — to a woman. Fristoe proves deft at conveying his conflicts. James is gay, yet feels like an outcast within the gay community, and comes across as simultaneously anguished and holier-than-thou.

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James' fiancee, Susan, appears in the second act, and Rachel Craw succeeds in making the role grounded and appealing, even though the character tends to explain herself through stereotypes. Her presence connects The Last Sunday in June, tentatively, to a trend in relatively recent plays in which gay men have affairs or otherwise complicated relationships with straight women, as in As Bees in Honey Drown.

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In the overall hierarchy of gay plays, The Last Sunday in June focuses on lifestyle issues, while Love! Valour! Compassion!, despite fulfilling all the clichés, touches on more universal life issues. Director Freddie Ashley nevertheless maintains a largely cheery tone that makes the play a satisfying evening. If not a theatrical classic, The Last Sunday in June at least gets your needs met.