A Sincere Provocation
Performing gender. The performance and gender in question being masculinity in various guises. Dramatically, theatrically, and politically underwhelming, despite some nice moments and a smattering of charm, the disappointing, if ambitious, “Men At Play” by Brian Burns struggles to find its feet. With its issue-speak overpowering its characters, "Men At Play's" interrogation of masculinity proves to be as deep as the blurb on an entry level Introduction to Gender Studies. With characters barely sketched, they risk being little more than ciphers in a lacklustre gender lecture. One buttered over by the bare bones of a play and buried beneath a self conscious meta-theatricality.
From the get go the award winning “Men At Play” gets off on the wrong foot. A sloppily executed drag queen, Foxy, showing neither sass nor snap, sits under a spotlight at a make-up table sharing her life story with its predictable and pertinent insights. Visually, and dramatically, it's all very Torch Song Trilogy, with “Men At Play” falling miserably short in comparison to Harvey Fierstein’s 1981 classic which, initially at least, it appears to directly reference. Foxy, or Fergus, a hard-working Kieran McBride, proceeds to reflect on growing up in the west of Ireland where he loved to play with his mother's clothes and make-up. The unexpected, and somewhat wooden arrival of his hetero brother Fionn, a committed if poorly served Ruairí Leneghan, complicates both story and the unfolding theatricality. Snippets of Gaybo talking about gay men on The Late Late Show, scenes mirroring straight representations of hetero and homosexual nights out push the masculinity agenda to the forefront with obviousness, highlighting issues such as male suicide, the acceptance of difference, the vulnerability of the invulnerable male, and theatre’s role in representing all of the above. As Fergus flourishes and Fionn flounders in a world of stereotypes and cliches it soon becomes evident that these are not the kind of stereotypes, nor this the kind of play or performance, that yields too many new or interesting insights.
Throughout, Burns directs with far too loose a hand, showing little awareness of how to handle movement, energy, composition, or cast, even if his attempts to break the fourth wall prove effective without being inspiring. Indeed, one suspects “Men At Play” would have been far better served had an independent director, one other than the writer, taken the helm and challenged Burns more. As well as giving greater support to his hard working cast who look adrift far too often. For Burns shows more promise as a writer, with moments of local colour hinting at what might have been. A wonderful, if overly long sequence between two brothers singing the Saw Doctors, a superb character study of a rural mother as much an innocent abroad as her two kids singing a particularly memorable hymn are highlights that reveal Burns’ talent. Yet dialogue often gives way to diatribe, with Fergus reciting the appropriate empowering terminology which he, or Burns, would like us to hear. Even so, “Men At Play” never really gets to grips with the dynamics of masculinity. Or with that of character. For you never really know Fionn or Fergus beyond their politicised positions or minimal life details, such as bank jobs or memories of Northern lights, which are not enough. Especially for Fionn. For it's hard to invest in a walk on statistic, a shadow character in someone else’s play, one devised to ensure that everything happening is all about the one devising and controlling the narrative.
Like many attempts at issue plays, “Men At Play” relies too heavily on the rightness of its issue to lend it substance. Yet “Men At Play” doesn’t explore masculinity so much as treat it as a rhetorical question, trotting out self-aware, terminologically correct answers with too few insights in a production that’s often theatrically and dramatically weak. Critically, it’s never easy highlighting these issues to a young company, but this is not Good Dog Theatre’s first outing, even if it is Burns’ first as playwright. Critical feedback, rather like “Men At Play’s” response to masculinity, offers a sincere provocation to dig deeper. For Burns, McBride, and Leneghan seem to be deeply likeable and honest practitioners with talent. One hopes they’ll rise to the challenge. For in its current incarnation “Men At Play,” despite good intentions, local colour, and some captivating moments, isn't all it might have been.
“Men At Play” written and directed by Brian Burns, presented by Good Dog Theatre, runs at The Complex until November 10.
For more information, visit The Complex.