Shame and its discontents

[This post is also available as an issue of my newsletter, Leaflet.]

This weekend Peter and I went to see The Gold Room, a play written by Jacob Perkins and directed by my friend, Gus Heagerty. It’s at HERE, at 145 6th Avenue in Soho, until November 5.

The Gold Room is about shame, and the way shame structures and compromises human relationships, a subject that one’s natural first impulse is to look away from, but which the play makes riveting—a testimony to the intelligence and art at work here. When the play opens, its two actors, Scott Parkinson and Robert Stanton, present themselves as gay men of a certain age—slightly self-ironized, battle-hardened in the wars of love. At the outset, they’re in the getting-to-know-you-over-drinks stage of an app-enabled hookup, which progresses, as they talk, but in a Beckettian way, never quite arrives anywhere. After a while, their encounter comes to seem less like an overture to sex than a meditation (or maybe it’s more accurate to say, a meditation in the form of an enactment) on the way disclosure and non-disclosure are staged, the way the narrative of a romance is scripted and produced by its participants—and by their psychic scars. Do you believe what this stranger you’re attracted to is saying about himself? Would you rather not believe, or even not know? What’s at stake in letting another person become more than just a stranger? The writing and staging take full advantage of the resources that are only available to theater: intimacy and presence. No other medium can make the dynamics and cadences of human relationship so visible and palpable, and Parkinson and Stanton, under Heagerty’s direction, are in beautiful control of their rhythms and intonations, and of the way those rhythms and intonations can call new feelings and meanings into existence.

Just as the audience is starting to feel confident where the scene is headed, its premises shift. The same two actors, wearing the same clothes but holding different drinks, now seem to be two different men, having a slightly different interaction. Maybe the first two characters are playing out new roles; maybe we’re seeing earlier selves, alternative selves, dreamed selves. The framing context that connects the first scene to the second is left open. Which is just as well, because the premises soon shift again. In fact, they keep shifting, throughout the play’s sixty minutes. We’re with a writer and a producer in a studio in L.A. We’re in a doctor’s office. We’re witnessing a long-term couple’s quarrel. We’re in a childhood home. We in the audience start to notice continuities between the different situations, patterns that repeat with alteration as in a theme and variations. In every scene, we’re able to sense the presence of something that isn’t said, of a limit being created by the impulse (or command) to look away, of the occluded damage that is typical of shame.

The Gold Room is a challenging and insightful work, unnerving, surprising, and at times very funny. The play is only running for a few weeks, in a theater with limited seating, so if you’re interested, don’t hesitate.