David Leeper, who plays five characters in a gay bar over five decades in “At The Flash,” is an impressive mimic, the kind of quick-change artist that could surely do a credible job portraying the multiple characters of such solo shows as “Fully Committed” (recently performed on Broadway by Jesse Tyler Ferguson) or “I Am My Own Wife” (Jefferson Mays.)
In “At The Flash,” an 80-minute play he co-wrote with his husband Sean Chandler, Leeper portrays Rod, the current-day owner of the Flash, who is turning the old bar into a chi-chi restaurant with a gay clientele. Rod sees himself as a success in business and in love, but can’t get his parents to come to the opening. “No, I don’t understand it,” he says to them over the phone after they decline his invitation, “but I guess I’ll have to accept it. Does that sound familiar?”
Leeper also portrays Richard, a macho closeted gay man with a wife and kids who nervously visits the Flash when it is a dive that could at any minute be raided by police in 1965; Miss Sparkle, an aging Southern drag queen and make-up artist who mentors newcomers and entertains at the Flash in 1978; Derrick, a club kid recovering from a break-up, and worrying about the results of an AIDS test, in 1989; and Mona, a lesbian who is frustrated in her efforts to get signatures to stop the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Leeper gives each of his characters a distinctive voice (and some memorable lines), and provides each a different carriage. He even assigns specific physical business. Just watching him drink an imaginary beer or stir an unseen cocktail stick or apply non-existent makeup is to witness the benefits of good training.
The play moves back and forth among these characters in no discernible order, never spending more than a few minutes with each at a time. This shows off Leeper’s skills as a quick-change performer. But it doesn’t mask his limitations as a playwright. The characters do not just belong to a particular era; they seem stuck in time — these are static sketches rather than a drama about characters who grow or at least change. And although there are some back-story revelations, we don’t learn all that much more about the characters over the course of “At The Flash” than is evident about them from their first moments on stage. They are largely familiar character types to begin with. (The only reason we even know their names is because these are listed in the program.)
This would matter less if there were not so many plays about gay life and gay history — 43 in this year’s New York Fringe festival alone. Indeed, some of the best and most original work of theater over the past two decades (such as “Angels in America” and the aforementioned “I Am My Own Wife,” both winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama) have gay themes and characters.
If “At The Flash” aims to re-create an earlier era in gay life, it also in some ways presents an earlier era in gay plays.
At The Flash
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