Showing once again that you don’t have to drop a bundle to enjoy high-quality live theater in New York, I had a great time on Saturday night viewing “Nothing But Trash” at the Theater for the New City at 155 First Avenue. Trash is set in the late 1950s on a summer-resort island, as hunky teenage guys toss footballs, engage in horseplay, and check each other out. In one highly amusing scene, lead characters Troy and Tab (played by Rory Max Kaplan and Tim McGarrigan) assess each other’s reactions to, shall we say, certain stimuli to determine whether or not they’re “queer.”
But complications ensue involving the alcoholic mother Beatrice (played by playwright Andy Halliday), old flames, questions of paternity, snooping by gravel-voiced grumpy resort caretaker Lucas (played with piratical glee by Jeffrey Vause in one of his three roles in Trash) and then a “crime” that lands lovers Troy and Tab in — horrors! — the juvenile justice system. But true love prevails in the end.
I knew I’d like Nothing But Trash because it affectionately nods to entertainment I already enjoy. It self-consciously twists the themes of romantic dramas of the 1950s, especially A Summer Place. Indeed, the play takes place on Pine Island, the same as the 1959 movie, and its promotional poster is a same-sex reworking of the movie poster. The bubbly cast’s bright, tight sweaters and shirts communicate both clean-cut silliness and sensuality. Halliday described his sources well:
I wanted to tell a story about repressed love. I was inspired by the lurid teenage romance movies of the 1950s. The first act satirizes films like “Peyton Place.” I love Lana Turner’s character – a frustrated widow, hungry for love, but fearful of sex. The second act delves into teenage rebel movies like “Reform School Girl,” where only the tough girls survive. But ultimately, this story is about two innocent teenage boys who must hide their love.
Nothing But Trash was also a homecoming of sorts for my own theatrical memories of my life in New York 30 years ago. Playwright Halliday performed in the original versions of plays by Charles Busch, such as Times Square Angel, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium. They were short, punchy, campy and hilarious, as Busch lit up the stage in immortal drag roles like Irish O’Flanagan, the hard-bitten chanteuse of the 1948 New York milieu of Times Square Angel. I can still remember the play’s last line, as an arrested mobster is led away: “We’ll see who has the last laugh!” And then the entire cast laughs at him.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what my 27-year old self wrote after I saw Times Square Angel with my friend Amy Frost and a friend of hers on the frigid night of December 29, 1984 at the Limbo Lounge at 647 E. 9th Street, deep deep in New York’s then-decrepit and drug-haunted Alphabet City:
Times Square Angel was a hoot, w/ a transvestite playwright-author. The scene outside the theater was astonishing — an “Ethiopeaner” church down the block. Across the street were ghostly vacant buildings and an empty playground. Yet the menace was mostly mental. Afterwards the three of us walked right through Tompkins Sq. Park, with a young cop at the entrance. Amy’s guy, with earrings in each ear, said Operation Pressure Point helped a lot. Afterward we had drinks at the Village Gate. I got home in time to watch Star Trek.
So, Nothing But Trash was a delightful connection with my mid-80s lifestyle, when New York was in the throes of its gritty, real (as the nutty nostalgic types describe it) collapse into social chaos. Halligan learned well from the master Charles Busch in both drag style (as if I know anything about that) and how to construct irresistible comic theater.
The play also had a generational aspect to it. I had tickets for me and my Significant Other, and I surprised her with our special guests: my nephew Tyler Wallach, up and coming graphic designer and man-about-Williamsburg, and his boyfriend. I rather enjoyed executing my familial duties as the doting uncle introducing my nephew to a connection of the time when I was young and creative and living in Brooklyn. From Times Square Angel 1984 to Nothing But Trash 2014, what goes around comes around.
Nothing But Trash plays through March 23, and the place was packed when I attended, so if you want a thrifty but enjoyable night of theater, make the call now! Operators are standing by!