'In Trousers' Illuminates the Agonies of Coming Out
To really appreciate In Trousers, which runs through March 26 at the Off-Center Theatre at Crown Center, some historical perspective is in order. Coming to terms with same-sex attraction and society's disapproval of it has been treated in very different ways in popular culture.
These themes have been present in Hollywood films for more than half a century, but have been notoriously one-sided. Sometimes the issue was approached obliquely (such as in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), sometimes directly (The Children's Hour, 1961), sometimes metaphorically (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, 1985). Always, however, it was portrayed tragically. Gay people were usually pitiful figures who tended to die by the end of the movie (I'm still traumatized by 1976's strange little movie Ode to Billie Joe.
Then in the 1990s, openly gay people started making their own movies, and the trend turned in the opposite direction.
Everything was a coming-out story where a cute kid stands up to oppression and finds another cute kid to bone happily ever after.
Gay issues on the stage have had a more open and varied tradition (for example, The Children's Hour was written for the stage 30 years before the movie was allowed to be made). And local theater powerhouse Steven Eubank has taken advantage of that for this show. He has brought a unique, historically overlooked play to the Off-Center Theatre.
In Trousers was written in 1979, and then significantly revised in 1985; it was eventually developed into part of a trilogy (the two other parts are March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland). It's about a man named Marvin, who is married with a wife and son, but secretly likes men. He is tormented about what to do with his desire. The stress is too much, and he has a breakdown.
In Trousers is basically a coming-out story, but not the fairy tales of the cinema. Although it is a musical, this is a darker, more unusual presentation. First, a good portion of it takes place solely in MarvinÃ¯Â¿Â½s head, in what can only be described as part mental regression and part psychogenic fugue (I almost expected David Lynch to be credited in the program). As the play flips back and forth through time, Marvin whirls through both his current life and his life as a 14-year-old. Some of the memories he resurrects lose their literal meaning and instead reflect the truths that Marvin wishes - or fears. Incidents such as a school play about Christopher Columbus take on an allegorical resonance that must be seen to be appreciated.
The other twist is that Marvin is the only male character in the show. We never meet any man that Marvin talks about. And when you boil it down, this story is not focused on Marvin's issues. It's about the women that Marvin hurts along the way, when he's trying to be a good heterosexual.
Besides Marvin (played by Jared Hill), the cast consists of three women who were important in Marvin's life. Molly Denninghoff plays MarvinÃ¯Â¿Â½s wife, the happy bride who becomes suspicious. Katie Karel is Marvin's cute childhood sweetheart, the girl with the huge crush who wonders why he's so distant. And Shelby Floyd plays his high school English teacher, Miss Goldberg. Miss Goldberg is ground zero for Marvin's troubles, and it is a complicated role to play, but Floyd grabs the role with both hands and steals the show.
The play is made more complex by the fact that the women don't necessarily play real people. Being in Marvin's head, they are also muses and demons, iconic female archetypes that one never sees outside of a Fellini film.
Technically, the show is a little rocky. On the positive side, the stage is set in a simple and slightly surreal manner, the better to make the temporal transitions with a minimum of distractions. But in a play that is mostly sung (and not literal), it becomes very important that the sound is as clear as possible. This was not always the case on the performance I saw, and it was difficult to understand what was being said at several points of the play - either the volume was too loud and the actor's voices just turned into a wall of sound, or the microphone seemed to be cut off. It did not ruin the show, but it was distracting.
In Trousers is a creative, energetic show with a bitter heart that illuminates a hidden and unspoken truth: Homophobia does not just hurt the gay person. The pressure to conform is so intense that the gay person is forced to destroy the hearts of any unfortunate soul that falls in love with him. By forcing the audience to witness the internal agony of Marvin, the show illustrates that in situations like this, everybody involved is a victim - and an unwitting villain.
Steven Eubank's artistic vision is made for a show like this. He understands the campy musical elements, but also sees the thin veil that barely covers real pain and bitterness. His handling of the topic makes this show a must-see for anyone interested in a realistic, complicated look at a difficult and destructive process that many people go through. As a bonus, you will see the revival of a hidden theatrical gem. I hope Eubank will produce the rest of the trilogy.