Stand aside, and let a fat straight Gentile review Fat Gay Jew, the amiable, intermittently funny Mario Baldessari comedy about gays, Jews, and fat guys. If we are to believe the production’s marketing, this play is about prejudice and bigotry, and how it’s bad and ridiculous.
Let me tell you – prejudice and bigotry – it’s bad and ridiculous. Although perhaps not as ridiculous as it’s made to appear in the three sketches which make up this play. In the first, Jim Helein plays a Man of Substance (which is what we fat guys call ourselves) bedeviled by a brother-in-law (Baldessari), who has joined an odd religious cult which has decreed that there is no room in heaven for the zaftig. In the second, Helein plays a gay activist who has concluded that all African Americans are lazy, drug-dealing killers. In the final episode, Renee Calarco is a convert to Judaism who is sufficiently insecure about her credentials as a Jew that she insists that she is more Jewish than everyone, including her co-worker, the former Temple President (Helein).
These are not exactly slice-of-life scenarios. Nor are they particularly rich lodes for humor mining. In fact, the real work of the play is to make us believe that any of the conversations which these situations would generate could last for more than ten minutes. Baldessari does passably well with this work, principally by planting a third party to mediate between the antagonists and deliver the laugh lines. In the first scene it is Calarco, as the incredibly dense woman who is Helein’s wife and Baldessari’s sister. Her effort to render her brother’s lunatic religion sensible – “is that because they’re red, like Satan?” she asks when her brother tells her that lobsters are forbidden – lighten what would otherwise be an ominous and uncomfortable confrontation between Helein and the eerily assured Baldessari.
In the second scene, Calarco plays the straight friend of two gay men she introduces to each other at a gay bar. It seems unlikely that Baldessari’s character, a gentle, rather withdrawn man, would ever like Helein’s character, a loud, self-involved braggart, but when the latter shows himself to be a bigot as well the two men really have nothing to say to each other. They say it anyway. In the meantime, Calarco’s character gets progressively more sloshed, and reveals herself in her loneliness, her self-absorption, and her unrestrained libido. Both Baldessari’s writing and Calarco’s performance are spot-on here as they track the drunk’s widening spiral to oblivion, from the trivial (“We’re like Will and Grace!” she says of herself and her gay roommate) to the bizarre (offstage, she flashes the bouncer). Calarco’s flawless execution of these tropes distracts us from the fact that with the main characters, nothing much is going on.
The third scene is probably the best. The three actors play characters who work at the same office; ,Calarco and Helein’s characters are Jews. The scene runs on conflicts generated by the insecurities of Calarco’s character, a convert. Baldessari’s character is, well, a jerk – somebody who takes pleasure from his ability to annoy other people. Calarco’s character is a gift from heaven to him. Helein, too, sells himself particularly well as a sensible man in a senseless situation. The dialogue is sharp and well played; this is clearly Baldessari’s best scene as an actor, and the other actors are lively and convincing as well.
The problem with Fat Gay Jew as a play about prejudice is that it shows no prejudice against gay people, no prejudice against Jews, and the only prejudice against the Man of Substance is undertaken by a lunatic. Thus we gain no insight about these sorts of prejudice. Perhaps there’s nothing insightful left to say about bigotry. It is the product of lazy thinking, which substitutes categorical assumptions about people for the analysis of individuals. There is only one insight to be had about it: that it shouldn’t be held. And that doesn’t require a play to teach.
Fat Gay Jew
by Mario Baldessari
directed by Keith Bridges
produced by Charter Theatre
reviewed by Tim Treanor
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.