Another wonderful play at the Berkshire Fringe. So wonderful that I felt I must write about it.
Phi Alpha Gamma. By Dan Bernitt.
The Lambda Literary Award nominated Phi Alpha Gamma is a haunting portrait of brotherhood, masculinity, love and fear embedded in American culture.
Two years after two young men perpetrate a gay-bashing that scars their fraternity’s reputation, another member of the fraternity comes out of the closet. Phi Alpha Gamma focuses a compassionate eye on young men searching for a deeper connection with each other.
The story weaves together the voices of four fraternity brothers as they each grapple with the remnants of the hate crime and this new revelation.
A one man play is already incredibly schitzophrenic. That one man must play, in this instance, four parts. Four different protagonists all fighting for the title of the real protagonist, and, it could be argued, that these four men really comprise one man. Not necessarily the author, though of course, in a way, but the fictional raison d’etre of the play. The cynosure.
For the most part I enjoyed myself. (And my boyfriend really enjoyed himself.) The acting was superb, and by that I mean, he didn’t once over-act in that emphatically emotional way plaguing most actors. Instead he delivered a subtle but profoundly gripping performance.
I am not an acting critic, however, I am a bit of a literary critic. Phi Alpha Gamma had plenty of structure and certainly a ton of suspense, and was not ham-fisted or overly preaching a gay agenda. But I did have a couple of questions.
For instance, Phi Alpha Gamma, the Christian fraternity known for gay bashing, has a newly pledged brother, Louis, that comes out of the closet. I’m not sure why he would be attracted to this fraternity in the first place. At one point another brother talks about the fraternity as family and I’m willing to accept that Louis was seeking a familial bond, except he was always in his room avoiding the group.
But yes, I was willing to suspend disbelief for that one point because the overall drive of the piece was to see how this meatheaded fraternity was going to react to such a blow to their collective masculinity, especially after the gay bashing incident with Aaron and Jacob. And, of course, it was a delight to watch their alpha male superiority at work. And not only was Bernitt making a critique on Greek life and jocks, but he was also criticizing Christianity, and that is right up my alley (no pun intended).
Bernitt bounces to and fro these four characters all telling the same narrative and all living inside the fraternity house, except Aaron, the gay basher, who resides in jail and spends most of his narrative depicting horrific rape scenes from his bunk mate “King”.
I found those scenes disturbing, as you’re supposed to, but I also found them typical. I expected this ironic twist of the tale, that the gay basher was going to be forced into having gay sex.
Aaron’s monologue is told in the form of a letter. He is writing to one of the brothers, we don’t know whom until the end, but we do know that he’s writing to the brother who he went gay bashing with. The one that got away.
So, the crux of the play’s suspense was in guessing which of the other three characters was guilty of this heinous crime. The alpha male (meaning the dominant one, since they’re all technically alphas)/ the president, or the self-righteous bible touter, or Jacob, the big brother to Louis, the one that Louis first makes his confession to before he tells everyone else in a house meeting.
I, of course, assumed it was the religious nut since the president is consumed with the fraternity’s reputation and I found Jacob to be a sympathetic character. This is why the end came as a shock to me.
Also, in jail Aaron talks about how he wanted to impress his partner in crime, the guy that taught him to attack gay couples at the exact moment they’re coming, because they’ll be distracted. He said he looked up to this man. He also said that Jacob was his little brother. I know it’s possible for the big brother to look up to the little brother, but generally it’s the other way around, this is also the reason I didn’t assume Jacob.
That, and Jacob’s character wasn’t developed enough. How could Jacob go from an intense bigot, one that takes gay bashing very seriously, to the most sympathetic male in the room, the one that wants to tell Louis that no matter what, Louis is still his brother?
Aside from those holes, most of which were only discovered in discussion on the drive home, the play truly was deeply entertaining and spot on.
The culminating scene where Jacob and the would-be priest (Daniel?) exchange Bible verses was executed perfectly.
“Justified homophobia” was left choking on the hypocritical Christian residue, and I totally loved it.