By Scott Miller (New Line Theatre)

Aug 11, 1999 at 4:00 am
Head Games, a new play by Scott Miller that opened last weekend at the St. Marcus Theatre, indeed has full frontal male nudity (nakedness, actually, and the distinction is not pedantic), so those who do not like that should stay away. In addition to the nakedness, however, Miller provides an intelligent and interesting context, genuinely witty and clever lines, and a wholesomeness and honesty both unexpected — under the circumstances — and exhilarating. Head Games is a far better play than Party, which Miller produced and directed last summer, with a stronger cast and higher production values. Those who savor male nakedness ought to enjoy Sean Pritchett's body as well as his acting, and those who don't mind male nakedness and could use an intelligent, timely farce will find Head Games most satisfying.

The play takes place — either in real time or not, depending on the act — in the apartment of straight Grace (Sarah Laak) and gay roommate Michael (Michael A. Naggi), before, during and after the latter's 35th birthday party. Joining the celebration are two of Michael's friends — the requisite gay bitch, Chaz (Justin Heinrich), and his more reserved, kindly and intelligent lover, Danny (Michael Deak) — as well as Grace's rather dim, supposedly straight fiancé, Tucker (Michael Bowdern). Hovering about is a masseur, Eddie (Pritchett), who supplies his soothing therapy either clothed or unclothed as the client requests. A little after the party begins, a young actor, Willy (Bradley Calise), shows up, supposedly uninvited.

Michael is the artistic director of a small, struggling theater company (not unlike the playwright's own) that has once balanced its budget with a production of a "dick play," a straightforwardly venal production that makes its profit by putting naked men onstage for the delectation of gay men. He is planning to do so again, so the conversation over drinks becomes a discussion — sometimes serious, sometimes not — about nakedness onstage. The late British poet Robert Graves once remarked that he wrote his sometimes sensational novels to support himself as he wrote poetry, the way another man might raise dogs in order to afford raising cats. Getting to this point is more or less the serious part of Head Games.

Anyone could insert but-seriously-folks matter into a sex farce. Miller, however, has fun (and so does the audience) by messing with farce structure, somewhat in the manner of Noises Off. Miller constructs a conventional Act 1 with a logical beginning, development and somewhat forced climax, and one comes back after intermission expecting to see what comes next. What comes next, however, does not continue from the end of Act 1, and this, besides the verbal brilliance, is where Miller takes Head Games well beyond the dick-play genre. His director's program note and the piece in last week's RFT tell the audience in advance what Miller is going to do, but it's like a magician's explaining a trick before he performs it and still amazing his spectators.

Miller's direction also deserves respect. He moves things along swiftly enough that the talky bits don't become too tedious. The consistent yapping bitchiness of Heinrich's Chaz (which, in a charming piece of self-deprecation, happens to be Miller's own nickname) helps here, but getting at least one actor off the couch and moving about would help, too.

The cast is well rehearsed, but only Pritchett, with remarkable self-possession, seemed completely at ease and in character throughout, although almost always buck-naked. Laak's twice taking a massage with her bra on seemed kind of weird, and if Calise wishes to add verisimilitude to his role, he should consider a full-body waxing: Calise is supposed to be a 20-year-old twink who's already appeared in XXX videos. Twinks (especially those who appear in porn movies) are uniformly smooth, however, and furry Calise is more a bear cub than a twink.

These queries aside, however, there's almost nothing to say against Head Games, once you get past its purporting to be a dick play, and lots to be said for it, because it's much more than a dick play. The production is one of Miller's best, and the play itself is a genuine tour de force. One might suggest that he seriously consider writing more nonmusical theater pieces.