Review by guest-writer, Dan Woods
Head First, a new play by Dennis Bush, starts out as a sex-drenched, gay coming-of-age story but ends up addressing universal themes about love and relationships.
The story is told as a sequence unbridled sequence of gay sex encounters that are used to develop characters and illustrate the deeper story about protecting boundaries and overcoming barriers to deeper, lasting commitments.
The play, directed by Lester Thomas Shane, premiered last week at the 2019 Fresh Fruit Festival and ran for four performances. Cooper Koch, a Pace University Theater alumnus, played Kyle, the lead character. Austin Larkin, who hails from North Carolina, played Second Actor, portraying Kevin, Greg, John and several other parts. Both actors have worked steadily commercially and in a variety of New York, regional, and experimental venues.
The story follows Kyle as he moves to NYC in the wake of an abusive act by Greg, a childhood friend. As a student he develops a close relationship with John, his roommate, who wraps his good advice and caring intentions in frat-bro braggadocio. As the first semester rolls on, Kyle starts to understand his allure and power, revels in the opportunities available to a young, attractive, gay man, and meets Kevin, a stable and secure middle-class man from Queens.
But Kyle also experiences a series of seizures, due to an automobile accident in which he is propelled head first through a windshield. At first the seizures bring Kevin and Kyle closer together, but eventually tear them apart. At the same time Kyle, with the help of John’s ribald and brusque analysis, comes to understand and address the nature of his abuse at the hands of Greg, and confronts him with the help of a non-ironic selfie. In the end, Kyle absorbs some of Kevin’s security, and Kevin overcomes his fear of loving someone who has a deep and frightening affliction.
The dialogue and word play in Bush’s script have a rhythmic quality, using tag lines such as “one truth at a time”, “I don’t say shit I don’t mean, and “let’s cuddle it all away” that move from character to character.
Bush, who lives in Phoenix, is an obsessed playwright who has published more than 40 plays and monologue collections. His plays have been produced hundreds of times and this one feels tight and crafted in ways that compare favorably to well-known writers. For example, Bush has full command of the fast-paced, Aaron Sorkin-style back and forth between intelligent and driven characters.
Like John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, Bush uses detailed verbal depictions of sex as a vehicle to move the drama forward. But unlike Shortbus, which purposefully delivered lots of visuals of gratuitous sex as a celebration, Bush deploys his sex microscope at the service of the characters and plot.
The production is a triumph of minimalism. With four chairs and a rolling screen the size of a doorway, we move from sick bed, to driving a car, to riding in a bus, to a dorm room, to Kevin’s apartment, to the subway, and so on, all the while knowing exactly where we are. While Cooper Koch moves Kyle moves through his hero’s journey, Austin Larkin plays eight other characters. All through this we know exactly where we are and who is on stage.
Anyone who has seen Shane’s work as an actor or director, as I have several times, can immediately sense his devotion to serving the play. In this way, he carries on as a director the tradition of theater critic Eric Bentley, who judged direction, production, and acting based on how well they realized the vision of the playwright. This is a far cry from many of the gimmicky productions now on Broadway where the director in effect writes a new play.
The minimalism extends to the acting as well. Cooper Koch, who has worked as a model, is truly beautiful as Kyle, and brings him to life first as an ingenue, thrilled with the attention he is getting, and then as someone who learns how to stick up for himself and value what is truly important. Austin Larkin conveys in small movements, precise accents, and vocal queues exactly who is talking, then he inhabits the characters in such as way that in retrospect it is shocking to realize there were only two actors in the play. Bush’s script provides a new form of language for each character, which makes this task easier. In addition, the theater was small enough so we get both the complex facial movements of a movie acting along with the demonstrative movement, postures, and posing need for theater. I felt as if Tad, John, Kevin, Greg, were all on stage as completely different people.
Both Cooper Koch and Austin Larkin deliver believable, precise characters. They complete the construct that starts with Bush’s script and continues through Shane’s direction to create characters that are fully coherent and real.
The truly touching moments in the play transcend the homo-normative backdrop, and leave us witnessing universal humanity, such as Kevin reaching out to apologize for withdrawing, or Kyle understanding how to communicate he has been violated. Kevin shows us how to reach out sincerely and politely. He asks for permission to sustain a chance intimacy, “you good?”, and expresses interest in Kyle punctuated by the phrase, “I don’t say shit I don’t mean.” Kevin withdraws in fear but then returns in love and regret. Kyle who at first is a bit passive, fielding a steady stream of offers, grows stronger and understands how to be a man, both confronting Greg who has abused him, most of all, saying shit he really means to Kevin.
In the end, Head First gets its message across without ever getting preachy. The lessons of the play didn’t hit me over the head, but came to me days after, as the scenes rolled around in my mind. May we all grow as naturally as Kevin and Kyle and always say shit we really mean, even when it is a bit scary.