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Bill Jackson and Marty McNamee star in Boulevard Theatre's production of "Jerker" at the LGBT Center.
Bill Jackson and Marty McNamee star in Boulevard Theatre's production of "Jerker" at the LGBT Center.

"Jerker" is too offensive to be effective

If I were a gay man it is likely that I would pick up a picket sign and march around the LGBT Center in Downtown Milwaukee.

That’s the site of the production of "Jerker" which opened Wednesday night under the direction of Mark Bucher, artistic director of the Boulevard Theatre.

I have been going to the theater for over half a century and I have never heard a play this dirty. Whatever is in second place is a long way behind.

But it’s not the dirt that would upset me. We can all live with lots of explicit language.

What I found so off-putting was the conceit of the play that portends to be a drama of the growth of a relationship between two gay men, forged on the telephone, in 20 calls.

I don’t doubt for a minute that such a thing is possible. But this play falls far short of its promise. It starts with phone sex that could curl your hair, two strangers hooked at the genitals by a phone cord.

Seventy-five minutes later, as we approach the end of the play, they are still talking about what they want to do to each other and what they want done to themselves.

If I were a gay man I could well be insulted by the one-dimensional image of these men. They reinforce the absolute worst kind of stereotypes of gay men: Gay men are promiscuous and they just care about sex.

I find that kind of portrayal offensive.

The billing of this play is that it is one of the most important plays ever written about gay men. I guess I could argue that the love between Antonio and Bassanio in "Merchant of Venice" is pretty much more important than this.

The very end of the play has J. R., one of the two men, believing and realizing that the other one, Bert, has died of AIDS.

The play is set in 1985 San Francisco, just as the rest of the world was waking up to the HIV scare. The gay community was further along in awareness, but the issue had yet to grow into a worldwide concern.

This play is a staged reading with two actors, Bill Jackson and Marty McNamee, sitting on stools reading their lines. Ostensibly this is so that the audience will be able to focus on the words of the playwright without any of all those other nasty parts of a play, like costumes, music, movement and so forth.

Jackson and McNamee were just fine, but they only had very shallow water to wade in. Nobody got underwater or even very wet.

And it’s really a shame. This material is ripe for a play. The very idea of two men growing to actually care about each other as human beings and not just sexual, transitory sex toys is an appealing one and seems like fertile ground to till.

But the inability of this play to show actual growth in these men prevents any fire from shooting sparks.

What we have is a simple show of fireworks without any ooohs or aaahs from the crowd.

CREDITS: Director, Mark Bucher; Production Designer, Maeve Jackson; Production Coordinator, Holly Blomquist; Technical Assistance, Jaime Jastrab. Visit the website for more information.

Talkbacks

hardgeminiguy | Sept. 21, 2013 at 2:02 p.m. (report)

Too bad the play is a reading. I refuse to attend readings of any play. I had planned on seeing this "play". not now. glad i found out in time. By the way it is too bad the language bothers the critic. i saw the play once and the language did not bother me as a Gay man. This is theatre, after all. Jerry Johnson

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jcmke | Sept. 20, 2013 at 9:56 a.m. (report)

Dave Begel wildly misses the point of the play, its staging and apparently its history. The play is set in 1985 and captures a specific time in the gay community. On the tail end of the sexual liberation of the 60's and 70's - a heady time when moral restrictions were shed and yes, promiscuity was rampant.
The mid 80's was a time of terror in the gay community in cities like NY and San Francisco as people came to grips with a plague that devastated entire communities. A time when some men where too afraid to have actual physical contact with anyone. Hence the phone - and the contact of "two strangers hooked at the genitals by a phone cord".
So yes, the play is about sex. But if you can get past the sometimes squirm-inducing graphic language, there is a beautiful story of two people who are clinging to the only human and intimate contact in their lives ... a stranger on the other end of the phone. It is not a pretty picture - and in the context of the modern gay movement with its focus on relationships and family, it can be jarring. But it was real and it happened.
And the play remains relevant today. There remains an undercurrent of this in today's culture - people that fully embrace the "hook-up" culture and celebrate their sexual freedom. If anything, the straight culture has taken up the banner of sexual freedom with even more enthusiasm than gays. But the specter of HIV is still there, only mostly forgotten by young people.
As far as the staging of the play - you don't have to buy into the Theater's claim that it allows you to focus on the poetry of the play. I think it is a more effective than a full staging because it puts you on an equal footing with the characters in the play. This is a story who's action is entirely over the phone - I don't think it should not be a visual experience. Watching it as a reading reading was like being on a party-line and listening in on an intimate conversation (or 20 of them).
Bill Jackson's (BJ) voice only makes it work even more so. His voice is like falling into a tumbler of hot toddy - warm, seductive and silky. And Marty McNamee (Bert) had the audience in tears more than once.
I don't know about whether this play is "one of the most important" about gay men - I only know it packed an emotional punch to the gut. I'm sorry that Dave was too caught up in the "dirty" sex talk to pay attention to the story behind it.

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