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Acting up and acting out with “Nancy F***ing Reagan”

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Colbert Alembert, Debi Tinsley, Mark Sande, Kiff Scholl, and Greg Ivan Smith star in the world premiere of “Nancy F***ing Reagan.” Photo credit: moses [@algaimaging on Instagram]

Anyone who walks into a play called “Nancy F***ing Reagan” has to expect that what they’re about to see is probably going to be controversial, left-leaning, and at least a little bit shocking.

That’s a good thing, because the people who would be put off by the title are the same ones with whom any conversation about some of the topics raised in the play would be as virulent and divisive as, well, some of the conversations that take place on stage.

Playwright Daniel Hurewitz’s biting, iconoclastic comedy takes place shortly after the passing of the titular First Lady, while her remains are lying (laying?) in state.  Just a few blocks away, in the Palm Springs home of college dean Maggie Lessing (Debi Tinsley) and her husband Richard (Mark Sande), old friends are convening at a birthday celebration for David (Kiff Scholl), a gay, nebbish-y history professor for whom the only thing worse than turning 50 is the thought of having it overshadowed by Nancy Reagan’s funeral.

The timing is admittedly unfortunate for this particular gathering; Maggie, David, and his longtime “frenemy” Jason (Greg Ivan Smith) are veterans of the eighties’ culture wars, and their shared history – much of which centers around the AIDS crisis – resonates with ways in which Mrs. Reagan could be seen as an arch-nemesis.  The occasion stirs up old memories, along with buried secrets and not-so-hidden resentments, and things are only made pricklier by the presence of Jason’s millennial boyfriend Kenny (Colbert Alembert), whose youthful perspective serves to exacerbate the tension, and the uninvited arrival of a student named Allison (Safiya Quinley), who demands that Dean Maggie hear her grievances about racism on campus.  With his party falling apart, David’s long-seething anger at Mrs. Reagan – and his longing to rekindle the passion of his lost radical youth – inspires him to come up with a way to make his birthday meaningful after all.

There’s a lot in the soup that Hurewitz has mixed up, and it might seem like too much if it weren’t for the fact that it ends up being so delicious.

To be sure, it might be rough going at the start; there’s an acerbic, self-loathing quality to the wit of these characters that evokes – not accidentally, I’d guess – “The Boys in the Band,” a play which is also about a birthday party for an aging, bitter queen.  Add to that the seemingly standard trope of the young boyfriend interloping among old gay friends, and you’re dangerously close to a tiresome formula.

But the playwright has put these pieces into place by shrewd design; while the cattiness of “The Boys” was rooted in the closet, for David and Jason – and even straight cis female ally Maggie – it springs from the bitterness of being freed from that closet only to watch half their generation die of a plague while Nancy and Ronnie responded with nothing but deafening silence.  That makes all the difference.

Nancy’s close post-mortem proximity to the proceedings makes for a particularly apt catalyst in stirring up intergenerational discussions about the dark years of the epidemic; but just when it seems the play is going to content itself with the rehashing of ancient (if still important) history, it blindsides us with the I-will-not-be-ignored urgency of the here-and-now. By introducing an emissary from the front in today’s culture wars, it forces us to spot the differences and draw the parallels between the causes (and the activists fighting for them) of both the past and the present – and it challenges us even further to confront our own conflicted viewpoints by introducing race into the equation.

Safiya Quinley faces off with Debi Tinsley in “Nancy F***ing Reagan.” Photo credit: moses [@algaimaging on Instagram]

It’s significant that Maggie, the very dean being challenged for being part of a racist institution, is here played by an actress of color; it underscores a key point being made in Hurewitz’ sly scenario – that these bruised social warriors of yesteryear have grown complacent after their hard-won victories, and by now contenting themselves to complain over cocktails about the issues of today while quietly toeing the line at their jobs inside the system, the have effectively become collaborationists with the very institutions they once rebuked.

How they all deal with that – both from the older and the younger side of the equation – is what makes “Nancy F***ing Reagan” a fun ride. With all these heavy issues whirling around them, its characters respond by immediately finding their own stake in the game and making it all about them; that’s exactly what humans do, of course, and that’s why Hurewitz’s script can be so laugh-out-loud funny while still getting its points across about unrelentingly dire issues.

Buried under all the satire and snark, too, there is an exploration of the uncomfortable (for some, anyway) notions that, no matter how heinous a person’s actions may have been, forgiveness is necessary if we want to move forward (though sometimes, maybe, we have to make one final, dramatic statement before it happens), and that when it comes to changing the system, sometimes the choice between two courses of action should be “both.”

Such deceptively centrist-seeming viewpoints don’t distract, however, from the enjoyment we get from watching these characters spar throughout the action – and the actors who expertly play them.  Scholl, as David, is the hub of the show, and cannily crafts his performance to highlight the constancy in his persona, the steadfast refusal to let go of something that matters to him – even if that means he spends a lot of time whining.  Hilariously whining, to be clear; he does a great job of personifying that guy we all know, who we might even pity in some way because he always seems so damn miserable under all those quips and barbs, and letting us laugh both with and at him.  Then he takes us along on a redemptive journey in which he allows himself to be as surprised by it as we are.  It’s a funny performance, sure, but its deeper than it seems, and braver, too.

Tinsley, as Maggie, is an excellent counter to his energy, yet entwined with it, too, as she establishes a strong, grounding presence that somehow manages to persist even as a few setbacks (and a few more drinks) reveal a tempest within. Smith, as Jason, brings an archness that gives a touch of meanness to his wit, but he also brings a warmth that makes us like him anyway; Alembert, as his younger flame, makes it clear from his first entrance that he’s not just there to pose shirtless and say clueless things – he’s a passionate, intelligent, independent man, and it elevates this potential cliché of a character into a welcome and integral part of the action.

Sande – as hubby Richard, a recent retiree now diving into a writing career – gets to serve as a sort of chorus to all the turmoil, both part of and somehow removed from it, and delights us with his charm and authenticity as he comments on (both literally and through the contrast of his freshly-revived lust for life) the goings-on throughout; representing the generation on the other end of the spectrum, Quinley, as Allison, delivers a solid portrayal of a strong and impassioned woman of color that avoids turning her into a stereotype by showing us the not-quite-sure-of-herself young person underneath.

Add in unflappable TV reporter Erica (played with surgical skill by Amy Kersten), whose broadcasted new segments pop in every so often to keep everyone up to date on the status of Mrs. Reagan’s body, and you have a tight, talented, and hilarious ensemble cast; under the experienced directorial hand of L.A. theater veteran Larry Margo, they make “Nancy F***ing Reagan” a hilariously confrontational joy that is worthy of the boldness of its title.

 

“Nancy F***ing Reagan” runs through August 4 at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood.  For details and more information go here.

 

 

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A fine ‘Bro’-mance

Eichner, Macfarlane performances essential to movie’s appeal

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Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner star in ‘Bros.’ (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that “Bros” is a history-making milestone for LGBTQ representation in the movies — the first gay romantic comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio, written by an openly gay man (Billy Eichner) who also stars in it – and that it was made with queer talent filling virtually every role, both on camera and off. The “Billy on the Street” writer/comedian/actor, true to his brand, has been loud-and-proud about his efforts to foster authenticity and inclusivity throughout the making of his film, and rightly so.

Still, now that his much-anticipated movie is finally out, we can finally stop talking about all that. After all, even when a movie scores as many points for LGBTQ representation as this one does, what really matters is whether or not it’s actually any good.

When Eichner was tapped to make his film for Universal, many may have assumed it would be a showcase for his signature comedic persona — acerbic but disarmingly funny, more than a touch manic, somehow confrontational, defiant, and self-deprecating all at the same time — that would also poke fun at a heteronormative genre beloved just as often by its queer fans for its camp value as for anything else. This expectation seemed all but confirmed when Eichner announced the casting of actor Luke Macfarlane – known for playing handsome hunks in the very romcoms his movie would presumably be sending up – as his love interest.

As it happens, those assumptions were not entirely wrong. “Bros” is unabashedly autobiographical in tone, presenting Eichner essentially as an alternative version of himself if he had been a queer history scholar and author instead of a poly-hyphenate show biz celebrity; his character, Bobby Lieber, has even got a podcast, allowing him to voice the kind of take-no-prisoners witticisms and shrewdly queer observations about life and culture for which both versions of himself have become famous. 

While at a launch event for a new dating app, Bobby meets Aaron (Macfarlane), who – as one of the crowd of shirtless gay scenesters he’s used to being ignored by, he assumes is shallow, not too bright, and not into him at all. It turns out he’s wrong on all counts, and the two men soon find themselves drawn into a relationship, despite some serious issues around commitment and the fact that they seem to have nothing in common.

All of this is a perfect match for Eichner’s comic sensibilities – he’s built his image on calling out society for the absurdity of its assumptions, the illogic of its priorities, the depth of its shallowness, and “Bros” gives him plenty of opportunity to do exactly that, as well as plenty of fodder for his usual zingers and pop-culture references. It’s very much the kind of savagely iconoclastic spoof we would expect from its creator, making fun of social conventions (both gay and straight) and lampooning everything from awards-show stunt fashion to celebrity athletes coming out of the closet to “Dear Evan Hansen” — but it’s not nearly as scattershot as it sometimes feels. There’s a method to Eichner’s madness, and it hinges on reminding us that we are all, from a certain perspective, utterly ridiculous.

If that were all that “Bros” accomplished, it would be enough, but it gives us so much more. Not content to simply settle into familiar territory, he sets his sights on rising to the level of the romance classics he boldly references throughout, from “When Harry Met Sally” to “You’ve Got Mail” to “Manhattan.” With the help of director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, whose sure-handed cinematic sensibility allows the star’s broadly satirical strokes and flights of absurdist fancy to flourish while still remaining grounded, he succeeds.

In large part, this is because Eichner’s screenplay doesn’t fall into the trap of being governed by the same tropes and expectations it makes fun of. Instead, it undermines them to take us further; unlike many romances, this one goes past the feel-good “falling in love” stuff and explores what it’s like for two adult men to build a relationship that works. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that’s not an easy or comfortable process, especially for a generation that came of age under the lingering shadow of widespread homophobia, but “Bros” is willing to go there – and because of that, its seemingly mismatched and dysfunctional lead couple are infinitely more relatable.

That doesn’t mean Eichner and Stoller ever allow their movie to become a “bummer.” Things might get a little messy from time to time, but what relationship doesn’t? By choosing to give “Bros” the kind of maturity that’s able to weather the storm, they’ve built something deeper and more lasting – the kind of movie that’s worthy of setting a few milestones – without sacrificing any of the comedy. And despite the cynical pose that’s always been at the heart of Eichner’s persona, they’re not afraid to let it get a little sappy, too.

As for its two stars, Eichner and Macfarlane’s performances are essential elements in the movie’s winning appeal. It’s perhaps not too surprising that Eichner, who’s been able to show us hints of his wider range before, rises to the occasion for his debut as a leading man; it’s the kind of work with the potential to elevate him into a whole new echelon of talent. A greater revelation is Macfarlane, who dives way below the pretty surface of Aaron to deliver a braver and more vulnerable performance than anyone might have expected. Together, the two actors find an easy and affectionate chemistry that is not only believable but makes it easy for real-life couples to recognize themselves in their relationship. They front a superb cast that includes Monica Raymund, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Guillermo Díaz, Amanda Bearse, Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Bowen Yang, and Jai Rodriguez, not to mention a host of queer and queer-friendly celebrity cameos from Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Amy Schumer, among several others.

It would be easy to go into detail about the many things that make “Bros” stand out as a piece of “queer cinema” — the way it weaves educational tidbits about LGBTQ history into the story as a tongue-in-cheek primer for straight viewers, or the sex-positive attitude with which it boldly and playfully depicts gay love-making, or its assertion of the differences instead of the similarities between same-sex relationships and straight ones — but it’s better to let viewers discover these things for themselves, along with all the movie’s other pleasures. We don’t want to give any more away, though we will tell you to watch for a scene-stealing turn by Debra Messing, who seems to be having the time of her life.

Other than that, all you need to know is that “Bros” lives up to its hype to become one of the smartest, sexiest, and yes, sweetest comedies of the year so far – the kind of rom-com that’s good enough to recommend even for people who don’t like rom-coms. 

And yes, it sets a lot of LGBTQ milestones, but don’t see it because of that. See it because it’s good.

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Billy Eichner ready to make cinematic history

‘Bros’ could be first gay rom-com to become box office smash

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Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner star in ‘Bros,’ which debuts Friday. (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

Billy Eichner, the gay comedian, is usually the one asking the questions. Eichner came to fame with his award-winning, 2011-2017 truTVshow, “Billy On The Street,” where he would accost strangers on the streets of Manhattan, often with an A-list celebrity at his side. Eichner would interrupt someone in the middle of a jog, an errand, or daily commute, to ask a groan-inducing question or play a silly game. Most New Yorkers did not recognize either Eichner or celebrity sidekicks like Chris Evans, Will Ferrell, Mariah Carey, or Sarah Jessica Parker.

The tides have turned. Eichner, in a few short years, has gone from video class clown to a polished (dare I say very good) actor, writer, and all-around mensch – and ascended to celebrity A-list status himself. In 2019, he starred as the voice of Timon in the Disney live action remake of “The Lion King.” He also voices Timon in the upcoming live-action sequel: “Mufasa: The Lion King.”

But that’s not all. Currently, Eichner is writer, producer, and co-star of “Bros,” a  new romantic comedy about two commitment-phobic gay guys in a relationship—Eichner and costar Luke Macfarlane. Macfarlane—who came to fame playing in schmaltzy Hallmark Channel movies— is another gay (and very good looking) actor; indeed, all of Bros’ writers, producers, and all of the lead and supporting actors (including Amanda Bearse) identify as LGBTQ (with the exceptions of director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow.) “Bros” is the first ‘almost’ all gay, lesbian or trans major motion picture.

“My day hasn’t even begun,” says Eichner who has just arrived in San Francisco, and where it’s the ungodly hour of 7:45 a.m. He’s just back from the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Bros” debuted to great acclaim.

“The goal was to make the funniest, laugh-out-loud movie as possible, that just happens to be about a gay couple,” explains Eichner. At 44, he is old enough to remember growing up during a time when gay-themed movies had limited releases and smallish audiences. “I went to see a lot of them,” Eichner recalls. “‘All Over the Guy,’ ‘Jeffrey,’ ‘Trick,’ ‘Edge of Seventeen,’ ‘Go.’ But it felt like it was something I did in private. It felt like it did when I was hiding a magazine [for secrecy at home].”

“Bros” is written for contemporary audiences — straight, gay, and everything in between (my words) —who are unfazed by scenes and situations that would have seemed controversial even 10 years ago. And, given the talent behind the project and the early buzz, “Bros” could be the first gay rom-com to become a mainstream box office smash, particularly with director Nicolas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow on board. 

“‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ ‘Neighbors…. Judd and/or Nick are responsible for some of the funniest movies during the past two decades,” Eichner enthuses.

One of the most charming aspects of “Bros” is a pivotal scene filmed in Provincetown, Mass., a community with deep gay roots. “Provincetown is maybe my favorite place on Earth,” says Eichner. “It’s as far out on Cape Cod, Mass., as you can get. Being able to film in Provincetown added so much style to the classical romantic story. The town has a rich, gay history but is beautiful, sexy, and fun. It is so welcoming to everyone that Nick [Stoller, the director], who is straight, and married with three kids, takes his family there every summer. It is also the first place that we began filming.” The production was shut down in between filming for more than a year and a half due to COVID-19.

Is there any romance going on in Eichner’s life? When I asked him for a funny story about a first date, he laughed and said, “I’m still waiting to go on one. But, seriously, I met a guy that worked for a cannabis company. He showed up as high as he could be. And of course he was hungry. I should have just called it a night then. But we went out and all he could do was eat. There wasn’t any conversation. But I don’t know if that is funny, or just weird.”

There’s a musical moment in “Bros” that may surprise some Eichner fans—but shouldn’t; he’s a great singer and studied musical theater in college. His love of music predates his bar mitzvah, which he describes as “Broadway meets pop music…I had a life-sized, airbrushed Madonna standee from her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour. And a standee from [the Broadway musical] ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. I even sang ‘Lean On Me.’”

Eichner’s singing talents are displayed in “Bros,” but briefly. “I don’t want people to think ‘Bros’ is a musical, though,” Eichner wants readers to know. And let me add my two cents: “Bros” is not a musical, at all. It is a comedy that is going to go down in history, in a great way. 

“Bros” is in theaters Sept. 30.

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Online Culture

LGBTQ+ friendly Netflix could lose a quarter of its subscribers

70% of survey respondents use Netflix the most, meaning it has higher usage than any other streaming service—by a 60% margin

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

LOS ANGELES – Streaming service Netflix which is home to LGBTQ+ friendly fare including the smash hit series Heartstopper, Queer Eye, Uncoupled, and Grace and Frankie along with a robust portfolio of other queer friendly content is poised to lose a staggering quarter of its subscribers.

In a recent survey conducted by REVIEWS.org, a organization staffed by teams of experts who rate and review connected home services and products including Mobile & Wireless; TV & Streaming; Home Security & Smart Home along with other web based offerings surveyed 1,000 Americans to gauge their streaming habits in 2022 and found that 1 in 4 are planning to leave Netflix this year. 

Based on the report’s findings,  that could be over 18 million US subscribers—and an estimated $272 million in lost subscriber revenue for the streaming company. The experts noted that Netflix has had a difficult 2022, losing nearly 1.2 million subscribers in the first two quarters of 2022 and recording subscriber loss for the first time in a decade. 

The company hopes to add one million new subscribers in the third quarter, but the report questions if the streaming company face another loss of that magnitude.

The survey noted that nearly two-thirds of respondents cited Netflix’s increasing cost as a reason for leaving.

  • Netflix’s Basic one-screen plan went up by 11% in January 2022 for the first time in three years.
  • Meanwhile, Standard and Premium plans increased 20% and 25%, respectively, in the same time period.

The REVIEWS report also pointed out that Netflix currently has the highest average plan cost among the eight most popular streaming services in the United States. And that is leading 30% of surveyed subscribers to share their password with people outside their household.

Graphic via REVIEWS.org

Netflix cost vs. competitors

Streaming serviceAverage monthly costNumber of plans
Netflix$15.15Three plans, no ads
HBO Max$12.49Two plans: With and without ads
Hulu$9.99Two plans: With and without ads (does not include Hulu Live+)
Amazon Prime$14.99One plan, no ads
Disney Plus$7.99One plan*
Paramount+$7.49Two plans: With and without ads
Apple TV+$4.99One plan, no ads
PeacockTV$7.49Two plans: With and without ads
Graphic via REVIEWS.org

Data as of 09/05/22. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.
* Does not include Disney bundle

Another issue with those surveyed was lack of content. 1 in 3 respondents said Netflix no longer has the shows they want to watch and then 30% said that they use other streaming services more.

The report notes that Netflix became popular for licensing many TV shows and movies for streaming before the company developed its own original programming. In recent years, those shows and movies have left Netflix for other streaming services—mainly to build the libraries of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, Walt Disney Company’s Disney+, and NBCUniversal’s Peacock—leading to ‘the streaming wars.’

Graphic via REVIEWS.org

The report’s findings state that the average American is subscribed to 4 streaming platforms:

  • 78% subscribe to Netflix
  • 46% are Disney+ subscribers
  • 42% subscribe to HBO Max
  • 33% are Peacock subscribers
  • 26% subscribe to Hulu
  • 22% are Apple TV+ subscribers
  • 5% subscribe to Hulu
  • 5% are Amazon Prime subscribers

The survey also found that 70% of respondents use Netflix the most, meaning it has higher usage than any other streaming service—by a 60% margin!

In a distant second place is HBO Max with a 10% share of respondents and Disney+ takes third place with 6%. Every other streaming service is under 5%.

So can anything beat Netflix the REVIEWERS.org asked? Their answer was “Right now, no. But rising prices, a lack of content, and increased competition could lead 1-in-4 subscribers to cancel their Netflix subscription within the year.”

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