The overly complicated family depicted in S.P. Monahan’s world premiere play at Empire Stage, “Aunt Jack,” will never be confused for the Nelsons, Cleavers or even the quintessential “Modern Family,” the Pritchetts.
The patriarch of the Sable-Church clan is George Sable (Harry Redlich), a fiery septuagenarian professor and gay activist, who is partnered for decades to Jack Church (Charles Baran), an overly dramatic drag queen whose career has seen better days. In an act of LGBT defiance two decades earlier, George and lesbian galpal Phyllis Judson (Merry Jo Cortada) produced an offspring, Norman (Bobby Eddy), now in his twenties and who runs away to San Francisco after a nasty breakup with his boyfriend Ian (Daniel Barrett).
Shit hits the fan and George suffers a fatal heart attack after Norman returns unannounced months later to introduce his new love interest, Andy. Much to the surviving Jack, “Phyl” and Ian’s chagrin, Andy is—spoiler alert—a girl (Shannon Nicole Booth). The outraged trio proceeds to do everything in their power to break up the couple, who adhere to an “evolved” approach to sexual orientation.
Monahan’s convoluted plot is clearly inspired by the 1978 French film and 1983 Broadway musical “La Cage aux Folles” with all the campiest sensibilities of the playwright’s mentor, playwright and drag performer Charles Busch, thrown in for good measure.
Director Michael Bush keeps the action moving, milking every ridiculous moment, especially in the fast-paced first act as plot points roll out one after the other. There’s a lot of material there and, in the second act, the writing begins to trip over itself as Monahan rushes to tidily resolve the deep-seeded conflicts while the specter of George looms over all.
Monahan’s writing is best as Norman and Andy discuss their fluid pansexual emotional and carnal proclivities, insights the writer, a non-binary gender identifying Millennial, can only offer.
Jack and Phyllis are products of a generation that grappled almost exclusively with lesbian, gay and bisexual identities and the tension is readily apparent as they begin to reconcile how their gay son can still have sex with men and women. Remember, for their generation, bisexuality was often perjured as the road stop to inevitable homosexuality. Queer pansexuality could simply be beyond comprehension to these gay fuddy duds.
Under Bush’s direction, Redlich, Cortada, Eddy, Barrett and Booth all offer earnest, solid performances, although Cortada never fully convinces the audience that she’s either a gruff, card-carrying dyke or even a lipstick lesbian. (Stereotypes are central to the comedy in this play.) Like Monahan, Baran channels Busch’s style of drag performance, perhaps carrying the shtick just a little too far.
All could dial the volume down a notch or two without losing any dramatic effect. “Aunt Jack” is a farce, but Empire Stage is an intimate theater with a max of 20 feet between actor and the very back corner. After nearly two hours of being screamed at incessantly, all I could think about was getting out the door, no matter the merits of the play and production.
“Aunt Jack” is certainly still a work in progress—with plenty of promise. Monahan successfully challenges the traditional notions of sexual orientation and identity that even many liberal LGBT residents of Fort Lauderdale still cling to.
As for audiences who were expecting something akin to a beloved ‘50s sitcom, there’s a website where they can find those “Make America Great Again” ballcaps.
The world premiere of S.P. Monahan’s “Aunt Jack” runs through Aug. 12 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $35 at EmpireStage.com.