Southern gays get militant in Topher Payne's dark revenge comedy.
Atlanta playwright Topher Payne’s work, receiving its Chicago premiere in a handsome Pride Films and Plays staging as part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep, spends most of its first three quarters presenting itself as a camp revenge fantasy, with hints of real darkness. Bennett Riggs (Kevin Webb) is a speechwriter for Allison Haines (Kelli Walker), a lesbian Georgia state senator being challenged for re-election by religious conservative Peggy Musgrove (Joan McGrath). Bennett’s roommate and best friend, Cooper Harlow (James Nedrud), serves up gossip about Bennett’s ex and teases Bennett about his flirtation with officemate Adam (Jude Hansen), Allison’s chief of staff.
Payne’s first act largely alternates between comic scenes at the campaign office, where straight staffer Kimberly (a wonderfully wry Lisa Herceg) amusingly fantasizes about Bennett and Adam’s potential sex life, and at home with Bennett and Cooper, who pepper their teasing repartee with references to such Southern gay pop-culture staples as Steel Magnolias, Designing Women and Reba McEntire’s “Fancy.” Webb and Nedrud play off one another quite amusingly, even if their Gone With the Wind accents are a bit syrupy.
Things take a shift when news comes that Bennett’s ex is in a coma, the victim of an apparent hate crime; the shock touches a radicalizing nerve in both Bennett and Cooper, which at first manifests in rather satisfying fantasy justice; anyone who’s ever harbored nasty thoughts about the kind of hypocrite who’d preach anti-gay rhetoric from the pulpit Sunday morning and troll for BJs at the bathhouse Sunday night can relish the sentiment.
But Payne takes his characters on a sharp, dark dive midway through the second act that’s undeniably interesting and unexpected, but not entirely earned in story. We need a bit more groundwork laid in order to fully buy the extreme and horrifying actions ultimately taken by Cooper, Bennett and others. Still, in Pride’s engaging, well-acted production, Angry Fags is easily the most conversation-driving show of this year’s Garage Rep.
Pride Films and Plays at Steppenwolf Garage. By Topher Payne. Directed by Derek Van Barham. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.