By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
The best surprise in David Stevens' The Sum of Us is that it's so much quirkier and more compelling onstage than it sounds in the Long Beach Playhouse press release: "A recently widowed Father [sic] and his gay son attempt to connect with each other and the people they love in [this] heart-warming comedy."
The release sounds like gay-theater-of-the-month, the kind of thing that packs in the gay audiences but doesn't do much for straights. But this production will have both straights and gays begging for more.
Twenty-four-year-old Jeff is gay and his father, Harry, is straight, and while sexuality is important to the plot, it's not as important as that more complicated bond between father and son. That's not uncharted terrain; scores of playwrights from the ancients (Sophocles' Oedipus Rex) to the moderns (Sam Shepard's True West) have already been there. But rarely does that relationship get such a strange light cast upon it.
For starters, Harry (a likable and compassionate Tom Moses) is quite comfortable with Jeff's sexuality (a well-drawn, multidimensional Michael Lightsey). The two live in a comfy little home in Footscray, an industrial suburb of Melbourne. They hide nothing from each other, even when they should. The relationship is so open that things get a bit hairy from time to time—like the night Jeff brings home Greg (an aptly wary Aric Cushing) to spend the night. The two get busy on the living-room couch only to be interrupted by Dad, who asks Greg if he'd like a beer. Dad then plops down on the couch and wants to know everything about Greg, even surreptitiously handing him some gay porn magazines when Jeff isn't looking, just in case Greg encounters any problems getting it up that evening.
Now, if this were a play about a straight father and his straight son, and Dad was handing porn to Junior's female dates, we might be in the land of Taboo 2001; that's more than borderline perv. And even in this context, one wonders if Harry's open acceptance of Jeff's sexuality hides some sexual tension beneath Harry's cheerful exterior. Some directors might pounce on this to argue that beneath many a straight man's chest a gay heart beats.
But Michael Ambrosio and his cast don't lean that way. Harry is a man who loves women, but he also loves his son. And while he doesn't understand why Jeff likes poking blokes in the bum, he accepts it—even though he thinks Jeff is missing out on something possible only with a woman: the creation of a new life.
I'm not certain how common such relationships are. But they're unusual for Greg, who has unexpectedly walked into the best-adjusted home in all of Australia. Greg keeps his sexuality a secret from his own father and is confused by Harry and Jeff's closeness.
This father-son relationship is a loving, lovely model of loyalty. Usually it's denial and guilt, stemming from keeping one's sexuality a secret, that prevent so many gay stage characters from finding love. Here, it's the opposite: Jeff's dates can't accept how well-adjusted he is.
Of course, there's more to Jeff's frank acceptance of his son's sexuality than paternal love. He's also terrified of losing Jeff, which might account for his interest in getting to know Jeff's dates—perhaps he's really trying to scare them away. Since the death of his wife 10 years earlier, Harry has had no one else. If he loses Jeff, what then?
It's a complicated relationship in a play that—as funny and pun-filled as it might be—is also deceptively complex. Things go awry in the second act with the introduction of Joyce (an effective Ros Gentle), ostensibly a woman but really more of a weak plot device, with whom Harry falls in love. Things hit a solid dead end in the final scene, when the playwright, who has so skillfully avoided sentimentality for most of his play, wallows in it with a plot twist that feels wholly manipulative.
But that's really a minor criticism of a play that works so well so much of the time. And even the disappointingly maudlin ending manages to reinforce Stevens' main point: as painful as it is to type this, it appears love really can conquer all.
The Sum of Us at Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Aug. 25. $15.