The Madness of Lady Bright
By Paul Menard October 13, 2006
In our post-RuPaul world, drag queens aren't the shockingly big deal they once were. Often portrayed as asexual bundles of press-on nails, glamazon makeup, and scathing wit, drag queens are more frequently seen as "edgy" marketing devices or talk-show staples rather than as actual human beings. But in TOSOS II's revival of Lanford Wilson's historic one-act "The Madness of Lady Bright," performer Michael Lynch cuts through the campiness to deliver a touching character study of a drag queen on the verge of a breakdown.
That's not to say that the show isn't campy. Originally performed at the Caffe Cino in 1964, "The Madness of Lady Bright" speaks through a pre-Stonewall kind of camp — the kind peppered with Loretta Young references and jokes about, ahem, "social diseases." In it, Leslie Bright (Lynch), an effeminate gay man cooped up in his tiny New York apartment, desperately dials his rotary Princess telephone, hoping any of his friends will pick up. But when even Dial-a-Prayer won't answer, the Lady Bright sinks deeper into a pit of self-doubt and loneliness, tormented by memories that play themselves out onstage.
Lynch brilliantly sidesteps the pitfalls of playing a campy drag queen; sheathed in a satin kimono, he manages to avoid over-the-top buffoonery, offering instead a touchingly coy and fragile Lady Bright. In fact, Lynch anchors the play as memories (usually involving encounters with "gentleman callers") swirl on and off the Duplex Cabaret Theatre's tiny stage. Unfortunately, these reminiscences — performed by two actors playing multiple characters — often lack specificity. Transitions between these scenes are almost nonexistent, creating a confusingly nebulous world.
But through it all, Lynch holds the show together, clinging tightly both to his kimono and Wilson's still-resonant text. And though public opinion of drag queens may have changed over the years, the story of humanity remains a constant.
The Madness of Lady Bright
review by Martin Denton
As part of their ongoing look backward at the roots of off-off-Broadway, TOSOS II and Peculiar Works Project are presenting a revival of Lanford Wilson's 1964 one-act play The Madness of Lady Bright. The production, directed by Mark Finley and featuring a shrewdly dense yet abstract set by Michael Muccio, is excellent, and Michael Lynch, in the title role, and his co-stars Melissa Center and Marlon Hurt give superb performances. Playing at the Duplex in Greenwich Village on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 7pm, this 45-minute piece is the perfect start to an evening out on the town.
The "Lady" of the play's title is Leslie Bright, a gay man of indeterminate (middle) age who's feeling, on this particular hot Saturday New York night in the early '60s, old, alone, and desperate. His only companion is a princess-style rotary phone (how quaint such an instrument looks in this micro-cellphone age!), but the only number that answers when he calls is Dial-a-Prayer: everyone he knows seems to be out.
And so, in between increasingly panicky efforts to find someone to communicate with, Leslie reminisces. What he's thinking about, mostly, are all the men he's loved—or at least had. In a gorgeous picaresque touch worthy of Tennessee Williams, Wilson has his protagonist live in an apartment whose walls are full of autographs, placed there by the many young men he's brought here and had sex with. (Leslie would undoubtedly prefer the more romantic and euphemistic "made love with," but the play's raw candor prompts an observer to state the truth, however unpolite or unpleasant.) The wall feels like a funeral guest book that's been filled out while the body is still alive and breathing.
Leslie also conjures some painful memories of his mother, and from time to time he rallies to imagine himself at this or that party or bar, though the results are ultimately no less painful. Wilson's painting for us here the portrait of an isolated old queen at the end of her rope. Looking back on it from our perspective 40 years later, we see how daring, how open, and how compassionate the work is; what a shocker this must have been to any audience in those pre-Stonewall days! We can also see that it's the work of a young gay playwright trying to understand older confederates and acquaintances; Leslie Bright is distilled through the kind yet uncompromising eyes of the young, literally represented on stage alongside him in the persons of a Girl and Boy who observe, comment, and occasionally role-play the sad, circuitous thoughts inside Leslie's head.
Michael Lynch is grand as "Lady Bright," never resorting to camp or maudlin self-pity; it's a forthright, funny, self-aware performance. Melissa Center and Marlon Hurt are superb in the much smaller roles of the Girl and Boy; Hurt, in particular, is affecting and memorable as one of Leslie's earliest conquests, the handsome young man who was the first to sign his name to Leslie's wall.
It's valuable to have an opportunity to see this seminal work in a first-class production. If you're curious about how gay drama in particular and contemporary American drama in general developed and grew, you will not want to miss The Madness of Lady Bright. — NYTheater.com - April 11, 2006
A Drag Queen on the Verge
Gay classic from ’60s still resonates
review by by Jonathan Warman
Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright is a landmark in the history of gay theater. In the mid-’60s it was one of the biggest hits at the Caffe Cino, the birthplace of Manhattan gay theater, transferring to a successful Off-Broadway run. It’s a short, very colorful character sketch of Leslie Bright, a drag queen slowly going mad from desperate loneliness.
Madness is something of a tour de force for the actor playing Leslie, and the current TOSOS II production features a particularly fierce portrayal of our lady by Michael Lynch. He avoids entirely any temptation to portray Leslie as pathetic or sad; in Lynch’s hands she becomes strong and passionate. This adds considerable dimension to the character, and is also a rueful reminder that sometimes it’s exactly the strongest and most passionate among us who are the most vulnerable to loneliness.
This production sets the play in the ’60s, when it was written, but I wonder how necessary that is. There is still no shortage of effeminate, aging, lonely men among us—even if that’s no longer the way many of us expect to live our lives, as it was then. Doing it as a period piece also puts some unnecessary distance on an otherwise very immediate story.
Also, as vivid as Leslie Bright is as a character, "Madness" is still very much a young playwright’s work, something that shows more promise than it fulfills. I only know that Bright is a drag queen from accounts of Lanford Wilson trying to get it produced back then. There’s really nothing in the dialogue (or Michael Muccio’s minimal set) that gives us any insight into Leslie’s gender identity—just general effeminacy and the word "Lady" in the title. Bright is a very intriguing person, whom the audience would like to get to know much better than we do here.
Still, this is quibbling with a very unique play that is unusually involving and powerful. More, director Mark Finley has used intelligence, passion and taste to create a production that is as good as this play is likely to find Off-Off-Broadway (it’s natural environment). Add to this a performance from Lynch which is as fine as anything on Broadway, and this is something you really shouldn’t miss. — The New York Blade - April 24, 2006
review by Bruce-Michael Gelbert
This spring, TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) II, playwright Doric Wilson and colleagues Mark Finley and Barry Childs’ gay theater company, is offering an early Lanford Wilson play The Madness of Lady Bright, first introduced on May 19, 1964 at the historic Caffe Cino, which was on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village and nurtured alternative theater in the late 1950s and the 1960s. The current revival is taking place at the Duplex Cabaret Theater on Christopher Street. TOSOS’ Lady Bright opened on April 11 and the April 18 performance is considered here.
The action of the play is set in the tiny Upper West Side apartment or, perhaps more accurately, the mind and memory of Leslie, known as Lady, Bright, a flamboyant, aging queen—perennially unlucky in love, clinging to a fading beauty—whose outrageous flair has saved him neither from crushing, desperate loneliness nor from going as mad as Lucia di Lammermoor, Blanche DuBois or Norma Desmond. Giving a virtuoso account of himself in the leading role, Michael Lynch, wide- and wild-eyed, with facial expressions that speak volumes, perches on his high chair like a monarch on the throne, giving queenly attitude, striking grandest of poses, and dispensing wit and wisdom. Reliving an encounter from his past and giving his age (then) as 20, Lynch, momentarily morphing back into Lady Bright (now), looks around warily as if anticipating that lightning will strike him. A dancing and philosophizing figure of fun turned haunted figure of pathos, Lynch’s Bright broods and turns tearful as he watches life and sanity splintering around him.
Ably supporting Lynch are Marlon Hurt and Melissa Center, portraying the people who populate Lady Bright’s past, their seducing and scolding replaying as endlessly as the Judy Garland record on his phonograph and the strains of Mozart wafting in from a neighbor’s apartment. Director Mark Finley and assistant Frederic Gravenson have, wisely, not tried to treat Lady Bright, with its reference to Pan American Airways in the present tense, as something other than the period piece that it is, but, unlike its protagonist, bemoaning varicose veins and brittle bones, the play has aged gracefully and—though conditions for the average gay person have changed immeasurably—still has pertinent messages to convey about life and love and the way people treat each other. Designer Michael Muccio has effectively realized Lady Bright’s petite abode, with its wall of physique and movie star photos and autographs of men who have passed through; the phonograph and records; and the gayest of fabrics. - Theater Scene.net - April 18, 2006
[Playwright Kathleen Warnock's report on the May 16th performance as posted May 17, 2006 on the Gay Theater Group on the Internet.]
(Doric Wilson, Marshall W. Mason & Lanford Wilson)
I was lucky enough to be there last night. I didn't take notes, but am relying on my own (only one beer) memory & line of sight, so anyone else please feel free to chime in with their own favorite moments.
I got there a bit early, and while chatting with some folks upstairs waiting for
the house to open, looked out across the street to Sheridan Square and saw a man
who looked familiar...realized it was Lanford Wilson. He was taking the
air for a few minutes before coming
in, and when he arrived upstairs, people were being seated. I was there when Doric Wilson embraced him and welcomed him and said it was "like a high school reunion." Well, a very talented high school where the grads and dropouts had a major influence on the American theater. All we had at MY high school were Donna Rice and Leeza Gibbons.
The place was packed; if you've been to the Duplex, you know that it's a rather narrow room, longer than it is wide, with a stage raised about a foot from the floor, and the chairs and tables in front lower than the ones in the back.
The wait-staff tried unsuccessfully to navigate the crowded room, made even more so by people visiting between tables: in addition to Doric and the other Mr. Wilson, Marshall W. Mason was in attendance, and other Caffe Cino regulars like Michael Warren Powell. Claris Nelson, and Jane Lowry.
John Wallowitch (whose New York Minutes just closed in rep with Lady Bright as the TOSOS II spring '06 season) turned up at some point, as did a ton of downtown/off-off theater folk, and the house was loving as well as shoehorned into the space.
I'd seen Michael Lynch's performance as Lady Bright a few weeks ago, and it had grown even deeper and more nuanced in the intervening weeks. And, being a playwright, I kept an eye on the playwright as he watched the play, and at the end, Lanford Wilson was brushing away a tear and rose to his feet. The playwright warmly embraced this incarnation of Lady Bright.
After, TOSOS II Artistic Director Mark Finley took to the stage with Mason, Wilson, Wilson & Lynch (does that sound like a white-shoe law firm?) for a Q&A.
There was a lot of reminiscing about their Cino days, and the alumni cited the other-worldly presence of the likes of Joe Cino, Johnny Dodd, and the other-coastly presence of Robert Patrick.
Lanford Wilson talked about the original production of Lady Bright, and its origins...the concept of the Boy and Girl characters stolen by him from Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro, and the character of Lady Bright herself taking shape in a moment at a friend's house when he and some other friends were laughing at the stories of a "Chicago queen," and a few minutes later, he walked in on her sobbing in another room. The reality and the illusion, Wilson said, made him want to write the play, and Kennedy's device gave him the form.
(Sound of theater geek geeking out...)
Mason recalled the London production of Lady Bright, which they took over there with Home Free; Doric Wilson said how he'd always envied Wilson & Mason's collaboration, and said that with Mark Finley he'd found one as good. (Yay, Mark! Yay, Doric!)
I wish I HAD taken notes, but there was someone filming with a very professional looking camera so I am hoping the whole Q&A will be available as part of a documentary or something one of these days.
Afterwards, even though we had to clear out of the Duplex for the next show, a rather large crowd hung 'round on the sidewalk for quite some time, and many stories were told, cigarettes smoked by those who still do, and promises made to keep in touch.
All in all, one of the more satisfying and emotionally profound nights I've
spent at the theater, in so many ways.
Footnote from Doric Wilson: "After
the performance and as we were all standing on the sidewalk, Sam Shepard
(another Cino/La Mama legend) walked by unnoticed and unnoticing."