Usually, the major benefit of theater festivals is the opportunity to see and hear new voices, talented new writers who have limited opportunities to get their work out in front of audiences. Rich Rubin, however, in pulling together the programming for this year’s GayFest, decided to reserve one slot for looking back, resulting in a strong entry and a reminder that gay theatrical history still has a lot to say to today’s audiences.
Rubin chose to resurrect Robert Patrick’s Haunted Host on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Host debuted in 1964 in New York and is one of the earliest openly gay pieces in the theatrical repertoire. It has been consistently popular enough to be revived periodically since then, both in New York and throughout an informal network of gay theater companies across the country.
Quince assembled a strong team for this version of The Haunted Host. Sarah J. Gafgen directed the two-person cast of Chris Melohn and Alex Kryger. With a play this old, there is a very real danger of the action seeming dated and stale. Gafgen obviously decided that the play would be best served by setting it in its original time period, 1964. This was a good decision; what could have been stale is more nostalgic while retaining a level of freshness that should appeal to today’s younger audience members.
The story revolves around Jay (Melohn), a gay writer living in Greenwich Village, who is mourning the loss of a lover who committed suicide at some unspecified point in the past. So haunted is he by the memory of this past love, Jay continues to hold spirited conversations with him. He is visited by Frank (Kryger), a young college dropout who also fancies himself as a writer and who is seeking out Jay as a possible mentor. Trouble is, Frank is both heterosexual and a dead ringer for Jay’s lost love. The action is basically a joust between the two as they both try to figure out what they want and if they’re able to get it from each other.
The play is ostensibly a comedy, and there is indeed much witty badinage between the two characters. But these days, the 50-year-old script would qualify more as a “dramedy” because there is also a great deal of soul-baring, and there is a delicate balance that must be reached between the comedy and the melodrama. Director Gafgen maintains that balance most of the time, though occasionally she does stumble into favoring the heavy melodrama.
Two-handed plays like this rise or fall on the shoulders of the actors. As much depends on the chemistry between them as on their individual skills. Melohn and Kryger are both fine actors, but their chemistry was only fair. They played off each other well enough, but we would have liked to see more in the way of sparks, both emotional and, yes, romantic. Of the two, more was required of Melohn in the way of emotional pyrotechnics, and while he rose to the occasion in most instances, there were spots where a lighter approach would have been more effective. Alex Kryger, making his Philadelphia stage debut, exuded great amounts of both youthful charm and naïveté, and there were a few points where he relied a bit much on those qualities. However, he showed he has the chops to deliver the goods.
Overall, this is a pretty good rendition of a gay classic. Could this version of The Haunted Host be better? Yes, of course. But it’s entertaining and engaging, and a credible presentation of a classic piece of gay theater.
For Henrik Eger’s interview with Haunted Host playwright Robert Patrick, click here.
What, When, Where
The Haunted Host by Robert Patrick. Sarah J. Gafgen directed. Plays through August 22 upstairs at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia.
For information on this play and other presentations in this year’s GayFest theater festival, go to www.quinceproductions.com.