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Review: Topher Payne’s “Angry Fags” provokes and amuses, but in the end it tries to do too much

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Johnny Drago and Jacob York in "Angry Fags."
Johnny Drago (left) and Jacob York are the heart of the story in “Angry Fags.”

“It gets better” is the theme of a recent YouTube campaign in which participants urge victims of anti-gay bullying to understand that things will improve if they wait instead of seeking suicide as a way out. But the two main characters in Atlanta playwright Topher Payne’s provocatively titled world premiere “Angry Fags,” at 7 Stages through March 17, decide to take that idea one step further.

Make it better” becomes their more proactive stance, and the bullies they take on are the big ones: gay-bashers, anti-gay preachers and bigoted political pundits. Their form of “making it better” isn’t just to post some encouraging online videos but to enact violent revenge. And as the story develops, their initially well-intentioned but misguided tactics bring some unforeseen and terrible consequences.

The play focuses on the friendship between button-down Bennett (Jacob York) and his more demonstrative and plain-spoken best friend, Cooper (Johnny Drago). A mutual friend, Bennett’s ex, is the victim of a violent hate crime. The circumstances provide the opportunity for Cooper to take sudden revenge, which proves so satisfactory that the two continue in that vein against larger and larger targets.

In spite of the challenging title and serious subject matter, “Angry Fags” includes Payne’s signature humor throughout, and the atmosphere is surprisingly tender. Always at the play’s heart are the bonds of friendship, love, community, family and colleagues. Payne thoroughly understands the language of friendship — the shared references, the intimacy, the irksome nuisances that often go hand in hand with knowing another person well — and these are all delightfully brought to the stage.

It’s a longish show; with two intermissions, it clocks in at just under three hours. But it’s a credit to Payne’s skill and the likeability and intelligence of the lead actors that it clips along and remains funny and appealing throughout.

But it seeks to be a lot of things, and in the end perhaps it takes on too much. It’s the story of a friendship, a parable about revenge, a detective story, a tale of madness, a love story, a political satire and more, all woven together, when almost any one of these threads could have been enough for a play.

Nadia Morgan’s clever set design, composed of banks of televisions upon which are intermittently shown news broadcasts, provides an inventive way to integrate video and politics (of the official, electoral sort) into the story.

Bennett works in the office of one of the few openly gay state senators, and she’s facing a tough re-election campaign against a conservative challenger modeled on Sarah Palin. Actresses Melissa Carter and Marcie Millard do a fantastic job of creating a political battle royal in miniature, and Payne gives them plenty of material to work with, even humanizing and complicating the Palin character — no small task.

But the central story of the two friends enacting violence, which otherwise would gather the force and momentum of a runaway train, often feels weighed down by its ties to a story of electoral politics. “The personal is political,” the Hillary Clinton-like Allison Haines tells the Palin clone, Peggy Musgrove, at one point.

It would have been interesting to see the story hew more closely to the interpersonal power relationships rather than the electoral ones. American politics is so cynical now, and has been so thoroughly dramatized and satirized, that there’s very little new to learn in revisiting the familiar stops: the distance between a politician’s projected image and real life; the tense and charged atmosphere of a campaign; the empty, but somehow still damaging, rhetoric of political speech. They’re skillfully depicted here, but they’re too familiar and don’t provide the type of exciting, unchartered territory that the non-eroticized, intimate and then suddenly violent friendship does. The electoral sideshow also has little to do with the play’s more intriguing questions. What are the costs of having “acceptance” as a goal? What are the consequences of abandoning that path for the goal of being feared instead?

It’s an intriguing, provocative contemporary take on the age-old Machiavellian question of being loved vs. feared. When “politics” is understood to mean the power relationships among ordinary people, we move into less travailed and more exciting territory than merely re-treading the machinations and hypocrisy of electoral politics.

By taking on so many disparate elements, and including actual electoral politics in a “political” story, the proceedings end up feeling a bit caged and directed. It’s a train that speeds up but never quite feels cut loose. We have the sense from the beginning that this will be an instructive fable about how violence, even justified or “productive” violence, can have consequences more destructive and damaging than intended, and that’s what it turns out to be. A friendship undergoing a trial by fire, and the delight in suddenly discovering the power of violence and then discovering too late that the path is disastrous, seem to be the story’s true heart, but it’s one we’re drawn away from by the inclusion of so much else.

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