Praising the Artists' Repertory Theatre (ART) starts to feel redundant after a while, so I'm going to skip the complimentary introduction and get on with the meat and potatoes.
ART's new show has a compelling claim to fame, at least to anyone who was a teenager in the '90s: It was penned by Richard Kramer, a television writer best known as the creator of My So-Called Life. It's unsurprising, then, that Theater District offers a worldview that has more in common with TV than with most of the contemporary theater to grace Portland stages—and no, that's not a criticism.
The plot runs as follows: Fifteen-year-old Wesley has just moved in with his father, Kenny, and Kenny's longtime partner, George. Kenny is a successful lawyer who uses the demands of his job as an excuse for avoiding his son. The burden of parenting falls to George, who gamely tries to foster a relationship between Wes and Kenny, despite Kenny's unwillingness to engage. When Wesley's friend Theo comes out of the closet, Kenny and Wes' mother, Lola, become concerned that Wesley himself might be gay. They are surprisingly upset by the prospect; Kenny goes so far as to announce that he doesn't want a son who is "bent." George looks on in chagrin as Lola and Kenny confront Wesley's potential gayness with no less homophobia than you'd expect from a couple of Bush supporters in Idaho.
The action unfolds in a non-linear fashion, as flashbacks interrupt the chronological series of events. The ease with which the show unfolds is due in large part to Jeff Seats' lovely set design, which is versatile and clean, elegant yet functional. The tiled floor evokes a ballroom, enhancing the self-conscious theatricality of the piece: There is a concern here with art and life, with how one can and should inform the other. Jon Kretzu's direction keeps things moving at a fair clip, only loosening the reins to allow moments of heightened tension or conflict to resonate.
Cast-wise, it's fair to say that the piece rests entirely on the slim frame of Michael Mendelson, as George Bridges—and Mendelson carries it off in spectacular fashion. Mendelson brings a grace and sensitivity to a role that could have, in less capable hands, become yet another two-dimensional caricature of the "fabulous" gay man. George is full of fabulousness, to be sure, but there's nothing frivolous about him; his flamboyance stems from a love of life, a love informed by struggles of his own.
Mendelson may be the emotional linchpin of the production, but the rest of the cast holds up their end of the bargain. As Lola, Wesley's mother, Susannah Mars is somehow both strident and loving, while Ted Schultz as Lola's husband brings a dose of world wise compassion to the production. A not inconsiderable feat is accomplished by the young Eban Hoffer, as Theo: He delivers a compelling performance despite getting virtually no face time (most of his lines are delivered from offstage or with his back to the audience).
Another un-credited cast member is New York City itself. The script is a clever exploration of modern family dynamics, to be sure, but it's also a starry-eyed homage to the city, as one cliché after another is dolled up and trotted into the limelight. George is a former actor, a queeny gay man with an endless ability to reference Audrey Hepburn movies; Kenny, a rich progressive lawyer who spends his days defending the oppressed; Lola, Kenny's ex-wife, a publishing hotshot who name drops Anne Tyler and Toni Morrison like they're old friends. Whether or not this version of New York actually exists is beside the point: This is NYC as romantic archetype, as a promised land for liberals.
If Theater District has a fault, it's that it resembles a live-action sitcom: As my boyfriend put it, it was a little like a "Very Special Episode" of Will & Grace. The difference is that underneath Theater District's glossy veneer of clichés and glib one-liners, there is an undeniable warmth that makes up for the shortcomings of conventionality. And there's something to be said for plays that aim to please. After the show, one elderly audience member was heard to observe, "Most plays don't make me laugh. This one did." That's because most plays don't even try. Theater District aims to tug a few heartstrings and leave the audience feeling smarter, and more compassionate; and I have to admit, in this case, being pandered to feels pretty damn good.