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With an eye to gay rebellion

Michael Mayer's next-generation take on activist themes finds its way with an unexpected focus.

August 01, 2004|Tommy Nguyen | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Farther down on 7th Avenue, some 20 blocks south of this coffee shop in Michael Mayer's quasi-Chelsea neighborhood, gay men are already crowding the areas around Christopher Street for tomorrow's parade. The influx is palpable; the restaurants seem busier this weekend. Mayer, still partly soaked from his one-block dash through today's thunder showers, mentions that tomorrow, June 27, is also his 44th birthday, falling on the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

Mayer asks where the rebellion has gone. He concludes that, these days, "the gay community is less political than it ought to be." It's still raining out. Who knows if it'll rain on tomorrow's parade?

"In one way, we're everywhere, we're visible, and there's a lot to be proud of," says Mayer, director of "A Home at the End of the World," starring Colin Farrell, which landed in theaters a week ago. "But by the same token, gay pride has also become a little bit of a circuit party, and that's just not my world."

Tomorrow, three-quarters-naked men will dance to Beyonce on large decorated flatbeds towed by pickup trucks. Not Mayer's scene, granted, and there are certainly better ways for a funny, opinionated, successful Jewish artist -- the three-time Tony-nominated director is still one of the busiest on Broadway -- to occupy his time in New York. (On Broadway, his "After the Fall" opened Thursday and a fall revival of " 'night, Mother" starring Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn is set.) But surely there has to be one type of float that could persuade Mayer to see the parade on his birthday.

"OK," Mayer says, becoming more animated as he imagines the scene just above his eye line: "I would like to see Bush, John Ashcroft, Condoleezza Rice and this whole nightmarish administration as these huge, enormous balloons. And then I'd like to see Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner, Michael Cunningham and all the great gay writers and political leaders come out with these giant -- hat pins! And then stick their pins in and blow up every single one of these figures. Now that would be a party."

Kramer, Kushner, Cunningham -- for Mayer, there's the rebellion that still rages for those still willing to sit down and listen up. And it's with Cunningham's adaptation of his 1990 novel that Mayer, in his feature film debut, has helped re-create that generation of arts and culture when gay dissidence was beautiful because, for him, it mattered.

"I remember directing the national tour of 'Angels in America' back in 1994," says Mayer, referring to Kushner's 1992 AIDS drama. "Back then, it already felt like a period piece -- as if we were saying, 'Thank God we got out of that.' " Now, Mayer says, the country isn't out of anything.

"If you look at [Kramer's] 'The Normal Heart' and the politics of silence it explored," says Mayer, "of what wasn't being said, the lack of openness, the lack of full disclosure -- it's going on today."

The fortunate constant for Mayer, who attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts from 1980 to '83 as an acting student, is that art somehow responds to the challenge. Today, HBO's "Angels in America" leads the Emmys field with 21 nominations, and a robust revival of "The Normal Heart" has just extended its run at New York's Public Theater until Aug. 15. Parts of these two works still pulsate with that explosive wake-up, act-up theatricality.

But that's certainly not the way to describe the constant light rain of a Michael Cunningham novel -- prose so gently consuming it keeps wetting the reader's skin even when its world is perfectly still and silent.

"I love this novel," says Mayer, who had read "A Home" many years before. "Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I knew what that world felt like: suburban America in the '60s and '70s, where the songs on the radio and culture at large were about the Age of Aquarius. Reagan hadn't been elected yet to turn back the clock, we had booted Nixon out of office. It was the dawn of a new age for many people."

The challenge for Mayer was to extract a dramatically inspired tempo from a novel celebrated for its delicate, patient, startlingly sober clarity -- one that follows two boyhood friends, straight Bobby and gay Jonathan, who in their adult lives (played by Farrell and relative newcomer Dallas Roberts) connect with a free spirit named Clare (Robin Wright Penn) in New York's East Village. Together in the '80s, with Clare's baby on the way, the three consider a new family unit, a different type of home.

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