Welcome our Guest Columnist – Mark Blankenship
Mark Blankenship is the editor of online content for the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) which innovates programs to advance the cause of theatre in the United States. TDF created and manages the TKTS booth in Duffy Square, and has ongoing programs to introduce people to the performing arts, and to make them affordable to those who have limited or fixed incomes. We recommend visiting the TDF Stages site for more illuminating theatre stories by Blankenship and his staff, and to connect with the organization yourself.
Is It Finally Time for Paula Vogel’s “Gay Family” Play?
by Mark Blankenship
Maybe now, after all these decades, we can see the show with new eyes. When it was produced in the 80s and 90s, Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven was met with so much hostility—and so much outright homophobia—that she said it was cursed and declared it her “Scottish play.” She didn’t want it to be mounted in New York City ever again.
Eventually, though, she met Constance Zaytoun and Marc Stuart Weitz, the married couple who lead Purpleman Theater. They were passionate about Vogel’s script, and they wanted to produce it. After several years of conversations and encounters through mutual friends, the playwright finally gave her consent, and now Purpleman’s production is running through April 12 in partnership with the New Ohio Theatre in New York City.
“I haven’t seen it in a long, long time,” says Vogel, who hasn’t been involved with this remount but plans to attend opening night. “It’ll be very interesting to see how it feels, now that the Queen has given gay marriages her blessing.”
For those who don’t know: And Baby Makes Seven follows Ruth and Anna, a lesbian couple about to have their first child. The baby’s father is their gay friend Peter, but before any of them can face actual parenthood, they have to deal with their imaginary children.
See, Anna and Ruth sometimes pretend to be kids. Anna plays Cecil, a 9 year-old genius, while Ruth vacillates between a feral orphan and a French boy named Henri. The women slip into these personae all the time, the way some people use funny voices to impersonate their mothers, but they don’t know if the imaginary kids should be allowed to survive.
As the characters shift their allegiances, Vogel delivers a fascinating look at how adults relate to the idea of parenthood. “It’s about the invention of your life and your family, and I think that’s where it’s incredibly rich,” says Zaytoun, who plays Anna. “It’s just so wonderfully complex.”
But several decades ago, that’s not what people were talking about. Critics were mixed on the major New York productions (one in 1984 and another in 1993 that starred Cherry Jones and Mary Mara), but more perniciously, audiences and even artists across the country rejected the portrayal of out gay characters with a baby on the way. “We’re talking about a time when people fled the Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street because Mary Mara and Cherry Jones were kissing,” Vogel says.
During a production of the show in Los Angeles in the early 90s, the playwright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive, was even harassed by her own colleagues. “My journal and day book were seized, and there were erect penises drawn all through my book,” she recalls. “You assume that you’re safe when you’re working in the theatre.”
Years later, she made peace with certain people from the L.A. production, and she found a silver lining in all the other bad experiences. “Because [people] were ill at ease with the play, I think they were ill at ease with an aspect of themselves,” she says. “And therefore, it’s helped me through the last three decades try to measure—when I’m uncomfortable with someone else’s play, a younger person’s play—whether or not it’s really me being uncomfortable with an aspect of myself.”
Still, it’s disappointing that she had to endure those responses at all. “We can’t assume that theatre is ahead of its time,” Vogel says. “We can’t even assume that theatre is responding to its time.”
But sometimes, theatre can at least try to respond to the rest of the world. That’s partly why Zaytoun and Weitz, who directs this revival, care about Vogel’s play in 2014, when gay families are sanctified by large swaths of the world and Broadway audiences are currently being treated to gay-parenting dramas like Terrence McNally’sMothers and Sons.
“The play has a checkered past, and I felt that was not deserved,” Zaytoun says. “But I also wanted to do it because I have this identification with the characters and how timely this play is. But it’s not a political play per se, because of the understanding that’s already incorporated into the narrative.”
In other words, the characters don’t worry whether gay people can be parents. They just assume that’s a valid idea and get on with it. “I think that most of us are at a point now where we understand that,” says Weitz. “They’re already pregnant. They’re already going to have this family, so what happens next? And 20 years ago, I don’t think people were ready to start there.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor. This article originally appeared on TDF Stages. Reprinted with permission.
Photo from And Baby Makes Seven by Steven Schreiber. Photo of Paula Vogel by Carol Rosegg.