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Johnathan McClain and Peter Smith
in The Last Sunday in June
(Photo: Robert Carey)
Pundits often note that human existence, having been depicted countless times in books, films and plays, can feel more like art than life -- more staged than real. The overlap between one's participation in any situation and one's awareness of it has become known as "meta" and is the subject of the Oscar nominated film Adaptation, not to mention countless other works through the centuries.

Jonathan Tolins, whose Twilight of the Golds (1993) remains the most incisive play yet written about our genetically engineered future, has found that gay life is now so frequently depicted on stage and in film that to write a "gay play" without self-awareness barging into the proceedings is virtually impossible. How, indeed, could a group of men play out a comic/dramatic series of events like those that occur in (and on) The Last Sunday in June, at a couple's Christopher Street apartment overlooking the Gay Pride parade, without an awareness that the whole situation resembles a gay play?

Well, they can't -- and, given how ably Tolins handles it all, we're glad that this is the case. It's utterly believable when the youngest of the characters (David Turner in a charming turn as young Joe) first mentions how similar the proceedings are to a gay play, thereby initiating an often hilarious deconstruction of the form. Following a statement by the group's dashing elder statesman, Charles (Donald Corren), that theater used to be the only place where gays could see themselves portrayed, one of the afternoon's hosts exclaims: "Now we're must-see TV!"

This is a central theme of the play. What is gay culture now that it has become part of the mainstream? For one thing, Tolins shows us, its distinct virtues and vices are thrown into sharp relief as those within it expect more freedom to be themselves. As the play begins, schoolteacher Michael (Johnathan F. McClain), watching the procession of pecs from his apartment window, describes a group of passing lesbians as "Sapphic traffic" to his boyfriend of seven years, a lawyer named Tom (Peter Smith). The couple's love and tension are equally palpable as they discuss their upcoming move to a suburban home and we learn of Michael's dislike of Pride Day. The phone starts ringing and Tom invites over various friends to view the parade from their window; this puts the couple's planned trip to Pottery Barn on hold, to Michael's dismay.

The gathering is composed of the usual suspects, including the flippant, still-single-in-midlife Brad (Arnie Burton) and the wonderfully preppy, Stonewall-era Charles. The requisite shirtless hunk makes his appearance, though Scott (Matthew Wilkas) provides a twist on this gay play type with his relatively down-to-earth assessment of the phenomenon of body building among gay men. What really sets things off is the arrival of Tom's ex-boyfriend James, played by Mark Setlock, the actor-writer who co-created the hit stage comedy Fully Committed.

James has news to deliver of his impending marriage to a woman; this is another plot point common to the genre, but James's particular issues with gay culture prompt a series of revelations that shake out tensions within the group. These are not exacerbated but, rather, are partially alleviated by the arrival of Susan (Susan Pourfar), James's fiancee. Her explication of the reasons why she no longer considers herself a fag-hag are so insightful that they make us wish there were more than one female character in the play.

(l-r) Arnie Burton, Matthew Wilkas, Johnathan McClain, Donald Corren,
Peter Smith, and David Turner in The Last Sunday in June
(Photo: Robert Carey)
Integration is another issue touched upon briefly but explosively: When the men declaim their lust for a famous detective who is a known racist, James blurts out the furious rhetorical question: "Does everything have to be reduced to a sex joke?" Yet there are no people of color in the cast. From the sound of it, Tolins hasn't dictated this in his dialogue, but it does raise questions in the minds of audience members who are being asked to examine the conventions of gay theater. (By the way: Is a gay play without music a straight play? At one point, a character asks "What is a straight play?" and another responds, "Mamet.")

The cast is an absolute pleasure to watch and the direction of Trip Cullman is stunning, not only in pace and timing but in his blocking of eight actors with remarkable fluidity. Cullman squeezes all the wit and nearly every drop of emotion from this script, and each actor seems fully at ease. The set by Takeshi Kata makes perfect use of the space allotted, while Jeffrey Yoshi Lee's sound design leads one to believe that the parade will be passing outside when we exit the theater.

The quakes in the relationship of Tom and Michael do not resonate as deeply as they might have, in part because Tom's meddling and insensitivity are tolerated to the point of near implausibility. This points up the problem of self-definition in a culture with such a strong collective personality. Hence some of the play's more polemical moments, which evolve primarily from Tolins's admirable posing of questions that no one can answer -- questions like "Who has the right to assert the correct way to be gay?"

The answer, of course, is "nobody" -- an answer that is both terrifying and liberating. As the erstwhile activist Charles points out, progress comes at a price -- "Them's the rules." As the lights fade on The Last Sunday in June, the main question isn't who's wearing a rainbow bracelet on Pride Day but what kind of life he or she is leading every day of the year.

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