The Way They Were

The File on Ryan Carter, a sort of gay variation on The Way We Were, offers more in the way of romantic melodrama than social insight. That's not to say that history isn't evoked: dramatist David Gaard has written a pageant play of mid-20th-century America, marching his two heroes through familiar high points with widely mixed results. Ben Fox (Daniel Koenig) is a Jewish student at a Wisconsin college who belongs to a rabble-rousing left-wing organization, one that later will be condemned as un-American. One night in 1937 he meets Henry Hochauser (Ryan G. Metzger), a basketball star working in a diner to pay for his education. It's a symptom of the schematic writing that the two students fall into a discussion of the Spanish Civil War and an auto workers' strike without ever asking, "What's your major?"

Ben and Henry begin an affair that continues through World War II, postwar Hollywood, and McCarthyism. (It also encompasses Henry's reinvention of himself as Ryan Carter, the host of a successful radio talk show in the late 30s.) However, that's all window dressing to their personal relationship, although Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 "day of infamy" speech, heard in its entirety, dwarfs everything else in its dramatic impact.

If you're drawing on social history, the details have to be right. Gaard nails some of them—the middle class's pleasure in classical music, a reference to gay Hollywood swimming parties. But anachronisms crop up too, notably today's inescapable blue language, which was treated as radioactive back in the 1930s and 40s, when "Nuts!" was considered vulgar. And Gaard's notion that the radio announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack would be followed by a return to regularly scheduled programming is ludicrous.

A lot rests on the two actors, and Koenig struggles with slabs of pretentious sermonizing: "They will scapegoat whoever, whatever Congressman Thomas and his fetid followers want brought to the sacrificial altar." Unfortunately, his strident delivery quickly becomes irritating (Gaard, who also directed, is partly to blame) and undermines one's belief that Ryan could be attracted to Ben.

Metzger's title character has more facets: he's a confident capitalist, a less confident intellectual, and a controlling husband, with varied sexual desires. (Ryan warns Ben, "I'm always going to want my ladies.") The actor has crafted a solid and subtle portrait, using a fleeting smile or sudden wince to convey emotion; he also possesses the ability to make some of Gaard's lines sound poetic. Along with FDR, he's the production's most valuable asset.

Both actors are required to play fearlessly and extensively in the nude, and the director brings out a languorous sensuality in the bedroom scenes. (Designer Michele Reisch, with less time to show off her costumes, has nevertheless created beautifully tailored suits, eye-popping ties, and even a nifty fur-collared topcoat.)

Gaard's intention seems to be to draw parallels between the past and the current state of gay rights—implying that gays had better fight for civil rights or be prepared to leave the country. "It's arrogance to claim beliefs and not stand up for them!" Ben says. "To sit by and do nothing while someone else is fighting for those very beliefs is more than arrogant." But some advice that Ryan gives to Ben (who has written a Broadway flop) applies to Gaard as well: "You might have been more successful if you hadn't laid the politics on so thick."

Gaard's direction doesn't help scenes build tension either. Instead, they just occur, one after another, and the finale comes so abruptly that it rivals the last episode of The Sopranos. Still, theatergoers who want to keep an eye on new talent may find it worthwhile to take a look.

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