Here is the story of six members of three exotic species of wildlife who have entertained New Yorkers for over two decades: (1) Silo (Dan Crane) and Roy (Matt Dewberry), two male chinstrap penguins who pair-bonded, built a nest, and hatched and raised a chick in the Central Park Zoo. (2) Pale Male (Dewberry) and Lola (Crane), two red-tailed hawks who built an enormous nest on the twelfth-floor ledge of a Manhattan co-op, where they hatched and raised their young. (3) Paula Zahn (Jjana Valentiner) and Richard Cohen (Eric Messner), whose marital discord fed the tabloids with allegations of cruelty, infidelity, and financial skullduggery.
You might think that there is nothing new to say about these well-documented events, which are vaguely familiar to us even outside the Large Apple, but playwright Marc Acito brings them to life, and Hub Theatre stages them, so artfully that it is sufficiently satisfying just to re-experience them.
Scientists have been familiar with homosexual behavior in animals for nearly a century, but Silo and Roy helped us understand that two male non-human animals will have sex as part of a bond of affection and not, say, simply as a form of aggression. They eventually became the subjects of a children’s book, “And Tango Makes Three”. Anxious parents, afraid that its sympathetic treatment of the two penguin daddies might cause their children to want to become gay (or perhaps to want to become penguins), caused the book to be taken out of school libraries in several American jurisdictions (including Loudon and Calvert Counties).
Pale Male and Lola captured the hearts of the Manhattan citizenry but not of their fabulously wealthy co-op neighbors, who included not only Cohen (the Board President) and Zahn but Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, Dr. Richard Levine. Enraged by the nest’s general disorder, which included half-eaten prey and hawk poop, the Board had the nest destroyed in 2004. The resulting uproar was so deafening that the co-op agreed within the month to put up a base for a new nest.
Acito anthropomorphizes the animals appealingly: Roy is a show-tune singing bird-about-town bursting with gay avian pride, while Silo is one profoundly conflicted penguin, astounded – and somewhat ashamed – that he could love another male, but unquestionably in love.
Pale Male is a tough guy with a big heart, who glories in his part of the immutable ebb-and-flow of avian life (“nature’s plan is make the nest,” he explains. “Make the chicks. Protect the nest. Find the food.”) and is a fabulous father to his innumerable chicks. Lola is an ultrafemme who uses her wiles to make her male be the best hawk he can be.
The playwright, a comic novelist and occasional contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered,” has an alert sense of what the world must look like to his animal characters. Thus buildings are “people mountains”, people are “featherless birds” and at one point the penguin chick Tango observes that “it’s the krill that we’re in a book.”
He laces the play with writerly phrases – at one point, Silo rhapsodizes about Pale Male: “his red tail soaring like a trail of blood against the Everywhere of Blue.” This could be precious and cloying in the wrong hands, but as done by Hub Theatre’s fine cast the language seems natural, delightful and even, at times, ennobling.
Which brings me to my next subject: Hub’s first-rate production. Acito doesn’t make it easy for a producing company. The four actors must play many roles in addition to the six I’ve previously described. In addition, Acito’s field of play is the entire city of New York – the penguin enclosure at Central Park, the hawk’s aerie in Manhattan and all the spaces above and between. Hub surmounts these difficult challenges with seeming ease. The numerous character changes require both great specificity in the characterizations (to differentiate between them) and split-second timing, and the cast – particularly Crane and Dewberry – achieve both. There is a particular scene where Pale Male and Lola, descending from their roost to the penguin enclosure, turn into Roy and Silo; I did not believe the production could pull it off, but I was wrong, and it was thrilling. Director Shirley Serotsky has done in this play the best work I have ever seen her do.
Hub has a small stage, but under Robbie Hayes’ sure hand, it is sufficient unto the day. Hayes creates both the roost and the enclosure, and makes them both credible, and has moreover given tangible form to all of the poetical expressions of physical reality in Acito’s text. Hayes sets up multiple video screens in the background, and it allows us to see the real Pale Male and his brood in the magnificent flesh, soaring over their city of dreams, a rapture of raptors.
Marring all of this like a huge zit on the Mona Lisa is Acito’s mean-spirited treatment of Zahn and Cohen. Zahn and Cohen are human beings, which is to say they are fools, and like millions of us, they have done foolish acts and committed sins. Unlike the rest of us, though, their sins and foolishness appear in the gossip rags, on the pages of daily newspapers, and on malicious blogs. This is for no other reason than that they are rich and famous, and thus envied.
For Acito to drag their marital failings – I will not detail them here – before us like half-eaten, regurgitated carrion, serves no artistic purpose and makes Acito’s otherwise excellent work look like a cruel, indulgent, obscure act of revenge. Because most of the events had previously been reported, Acito’s writing is probably not actionable (although the story may be different in California, where there is a limited “right of publicity” which controls how a person’s image can be used). But it is a poor thing, if the best thing you can say of a playwright’s work is that it won’t get him sued.
Messner and Valentiner are much better used as a birdwatcher and zookeeper, respectively, who find the first tentative stirrings of love in the denouement to Roy and Silo’s story. The birder and the zookeeper, tough New Yorkers both, make the same discovery that we make watching the creatures in and under the Everywhere of Blue: that love is difficult, scary, and not for sissies, but it beats the hell out of loneliness.
Birds of a Feather
By Marc Acito
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Produced by Hub Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 5o minutes , including one intermission