THE HAUNTED HOST, “America’s First Gay Play,” celebrates its 50th Anniversary production at this year’s GayFest! Written by Robert Patrick, the play examines the incendiary encounter between the snarky, out-and-proud Jay (Chris Melohn) and fresh-faced, straight aspiring writer Frank (Alex Kryger). Under the direction of Sarah J. Gafgen, she and the two actors dust off this quinquagenarian piece of contemporary American theater and breathe into it new energy, humor, and truth.
On a favor called in by a friend, the misanthropic Jay agrees to let a traveling college drop-out, Frank, crash on his couch for the night. Jay has given up on his dream of becoming a writer, while Frank eagerly seeks advice and guidance on his own play. However, in a great display of “neon nihilism,” Jay teases and bullies his straight guest Frank, who looks uncannily similar to Jay’s recently deceased boyfriend. As these men come to understand each other, and themselves, we discover what it means to sacrifice yourself for lovers, friends, and art.
Constantly speaking to his boyfriend’s “ghost,” Jay posits that we are only the accumulation of all those who influence us and steer our lives. As he sifts through the remains of their relationship, Jay blames himself for his death and realizes that we can only give so much of ourselves to others without completely losing our sense of identity. However, is there such a thing as the “self,” or are we just what Jay theorizes—projections of others’ desires, copies of others’ failings? Frank also recognizes the mutability of personality and vows to not become disenfranchised like Jay. On the other hand, Jay spends much of the play trying to shatter Frank’s sense of self and lure the young writer into similar disenfranchisement. Misery loves company.
Patrick weaves performance and reality seamlessly through the dialogue. There are plays within the play, leaving us to guess where Jay is putting on an act and when he is actually allowing himself to be vulnerable. Melohn brings such vibrancy and sincerity to the role, earning Jay, a man who uses snarky humor and camp as a defense mechanism, much humanity and sympathy. Melohn’s control over each scene truly makes this production memorable.
Kryger delivers an equally truthful and nuanced performance as Frank, literal “straight man” to Jay’s dramatic antics. While Patrick gives most of the play’s one-liners to Jay, Kryger’s Frank is eager and charming. It is wonderful to watch his transformation over his one-night-friendship with Jay. The two actors’ chemistry make Jay and Frank’s sudden, tumultuous friendship real and captivating.
Due to the limitations of the festival and the venue, the set is minimalistic. The stage offers just enough space to serve as Jay’s living room, and the entire set is comprised only of furniture, décor, and a door upstage right. However, this is all we really need to accept that we are in Jay’s Greenwich Village apartment. The dialogue and Gafgen’s staging do the rest in defining and shaping the world of the play. Set designer Joseph Napolitano, along with props designer Valerie Bannan, deserve credit for the myriad of knick-knacks, magazine clippings, notebooks, and other clutter that lend themselves to Jay’s general disarray.
THE HAUNTED HOST is a timeless play about how we build barriers to prevent change and avoid potential heartbreak, even when we desperately need guidance and friendship. Patrick’s adept use of language and wit launched the gay theater movement in America fifty years ago and it is so exciting that GayFest! is revisiting this piece. When Frank tells Jay there must be “a place for the homosexual” in society, Jay quips, “What, you mean off-Broadway?” Patrick later did make independent theater a haven for gay characters, and now Philadelphia’s GayFest! provides that same venue for audiences to hear the voices of gay playwrights. [Plays and Players Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Place] August 8-22, 2014. www.quinceproductions.com.