Dallas — James Wesley’s Art and Science, premiering at Uptown Players, is the playwright’s terribly sincere and affectionate tribute to a former teacher. In a recent TJ interview, Wesley says the fictionalized but highly autobiographical events were written down over a number of years and only now honed into a two-act play, directed with nuanced timing by Jason St. Little at Frank’s Place, upstairs at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
The result is a touching, sometimes comic, loosely structured series of scenes—part memoir, part advice column—carried forward in the dialogue between two gay men, one still young and one elderly and ill, reflecting on their past experiences and what the future holds for each.
Adam (a keyed-up and Russ Tamblyn-handsome Christopher Cassarino), a thirtysomething New York-based actor and singer, visits Robert (a fragile and stubbornly bemused David Benn), his former voice teacher on a trip to California. Adam hasn’t seen Robert in eight years, and is thrown into crisis mode when he finds Robert collapsed on the floor waiting for a return call from his trusted Christian Science practitioner, who happens to be vacationing in Florida.
Concerned and frustrated by the whole business, Adam can’t convince his elderly friend, a longtime Mary Baker Eddy convert, to seek medical help for what is clearly a paralytic stroke that’s left him barely able to sit, stand or hold a bowl of ice cream. Weak but stubborn, Robert insists “the mind governs the body, not partially but wholly.”
Unable to drag Robert to a doctor, Adam settles in to feed him canned soup and crackers—and to protect him from a potentially disastrous fall between prayer calls. Over the course of several days and many personal recollections, Robert learns that Adam has abandoned his performance career and is teetering on the brink of destroying his longtime relationship and abandoning his adopted baby daughter in New York for a fling with an old flame, a sexy but self-serving man he left behind to pursue his love of theater up east.
Robert has his own fond memories of first love, a touching narrative of a homosexual affair before anyone was out, although Adam says it sounds like a “gay Harlequin Romance.” As the two men argue about how best to address Robert’s illness, the aging teacher delivers shockingly sad revelations about the legal battering and familial betrayal of a gay man caught “fooling around” in the army.
Cassarino's Adam has an appealing, boyish urgency about him. Even when he’s yelling at Robert, his love for his old teacher shows in his sudden smile and small, helpful gestures. Benn’s Robert is pitifully convincing as a stroke victim, his hand twisted backward and his balance painfully precarious. He’s best when his gaze goes distant and he recalls a good student or old lover, but his voice takes on a preachy drawl when he cautions Adam about the risk he’s taking.
Despite their differences, Adam and Robert respect each other. Their emotional confrontations lead them to greater honesty about the complex basis of their own friendship—and Adam gains insight into how a man might shape a meaningful creative life and a solid loving relationship if he works at it. Talk about it. Right?
This play certainly does plenty of talking—about friendship, teacher-student relationships, the huge generational difference in the gay experience in America in this century, the importance of sustaining a family, the efficacy of Christian Scientist prayer healing, and even rants about astronomical medical bills, the miseries of auditions and call-backs, and the maudlin possibilities of Meet Me in St. Louis.
Lots to cover in one play, and sometimes Art and Science suffers from being about everything. Still, Weston and company manage to cover a lot of themes in two acts, giving us a slice-of-life, coffee table-view of the life choices for gay men, then and now. Not surprisingly, the values that matter most—love, rewarding work, a positive sense of the future—matter to everybody.
Dennis Canright’s set, stretched out across the length of the small, intimate theater, is a perfect recreation of an aging musician’s apartment, with record albums and books lining the walls and papers strewn beneath the sofa. You naturally lean in and listen.