Arts in the Park sets the Agenda: Robb Leigh Davis’ new play packs a punch

Greek tragedy is alive and well at Park Avenue Christian Church’s Arts in the Park. The progressive theatrical organization (at the former home of Theater 1010) presented a limited run of Robb Leigh Davis’ drama, The Homosexual Agenda. Set in the cramped office of an organization advocating gay rights, the play quickly unfolded into a battle of old ways vs. new. What makes this work different from others of the same concept is the fluid nature of what is old and what is new.

Gay collation members, Evelyn and Alvin prepare for a momentous meeting with a powerful senator currently up for reelection. They are forced to include Shane, an older founding member of their group. At first glance, we are set to believe that Shane is out of touch and his antiquated philosophies are fodder for an unsuccessful summit between the senator and the group. In the course of 90 minutes, this hypothesis is turned upside down – several times and in several ways.

The senator and his colleague, a reverend, turn out to be corrupt, the gay collation has devolved from a militant powerful group to a gaggle of PC pawns, and – thanks to a startling second half – we see that nothing has changed since the days before AIDS had a name. This might still seem contrived until till you observe that the senator is played by a rugged African-American (Robb Leigh Davis); the reverend is played by a vivacious woman (Jenn Wehrung); Evelyn and Alvin (Nysheva-Starr and Pierce Forsythe) resemble a conservative public relations team; with only Shane (Benn Dunn) emerging as what you might expect from a trailblazer in the gay community.  With this inspired casting, we are given an existential one-two punch that the oppressed forget quickly and become the oppressor and that nothing replaces courage and conviction.

If we weren’t sure that was the message, the stunning change from secretary to commando done by Jen Peterman and the liberal use of a bigoted talk show host (Jem Jurim) as Shane’s inspiration, bring it all home.

Starr and Forsythe were perfect as the all-too-correct liaisons for this former militant gay group with Starr’s staccato voice cutting through the air and Forsythe’s total stage ease and charismatic delivery; Davis and Wehrung had a savage intensity just below their surfaces that made each line riveting; Jen Peterman as the admin turned rebel with a cause gave a true tour de force; and even Jem Jurin – the disembodied radio voice of a lynch-rallying bigot – gave us a twang that was equal parts hypnotic and hatred.

Ultimately, Benn Dunn as Shane was star-power in all ways. His physical presence belied a man who knows nothing but sadness and battle, which only made his power-packed delivery that much more engrossing. A monologue about his AIDS experiences said amid shrieks and tears to the senator was a defining and brilliantly-executed moment.

The theater-proper was not used. Instead, both audience and actors sat on the stage with the walls and curtains brushing their necks, creating Serling-esque claustrophobia at being held captive in this poor groups headquarters – held captive being an operative phrase.

Davis’ script – while very well written – could use a small amount of editing as to ensure that his powerful message doesn’t get preachy; and although the plays moved quickly, the pacing could be picked up just slightly. Again to ensure the message is delivered to all ears.

Davis should be admired for creating this work and giving it to a 21st century audience to ensure that the past is remembered correctly; and Park Avenue Christian Church’s Arts in the Park should be praised for presenting such a daring work. This play should be kept on the agenda of many a theater season.