Michael Mayer is in a quandary. We’re sitting in a Chelsea diner near where he lives with his Jewish doctor boyfriend, and he’s brooding over the morning’s
New York Times. On one hand, there’s an article announcing that
Triumph of Love, the musical that he’d nurtured since its conception and that became his Broadway debut as director, would be closing after an all-too-brief run. On the other hand, there’s a two-column full-page ad for
his revival of Arthur Miller’s
A View from the Bridge quoting the rave reviews it had just received.
Sad as it is to watch a favorite show go down the tubes, just having two shows on Broadway at the same time is enough to establish 37-year-old Mayer as a director to watch. He’s been on a roll since 1993, when his former New York University classmate
Tony Kushner invited him to direct a student production of
Perestroika, the second part of Kushner’s Pulizer-winning gay epic
America, at their alma mater. The Broadway producers were sufficiently impressed to hire Mayer to direct the national touring company of
Angels the following year, which put him on the map. Since then he’s worked almost nonstop, frequently with prominent gay writers such as Craig Lucas
(Missing Persons) and the late Howard Ashman (the revue
Hundreds of Hats).
Staging both an intimate vaudevillean musical and a Greek tragedy transposed to ‘50s Brooklyn would be a fun challenge for any director, and Mayer feels his secure gay identity has been an asset to both projects. What interested him about James Magruder’s translation of
Triumph of Love, Pierre Marivaux’s gender-bending 18th-century comedy about a female Don Juan who woos both men and women in pursuit of her true love, was “the cultural flypaper aspect of camp sensibility.” Throwing in Tin Pan Alley references and openly acknowledging the diva worship that surrounds a star like Betty Buckley, Mayer and Magruder were “amusing ourselves, which is what gay people have always done, because who else will do it?”
Meanwhile, Mayer brought a ‘90s bluntness to View, whose main character, consumed by an illicit passion for his niece, projects his sexual confusion onto his wife’s Italian immigrant cousin, whom he brands as queer. “In the ‘50s the audience had no distance from Eddie’s psychological problems,” says Mayer. “You couldn’t acknowledge homophobia because there wasn’t anything else going on in the culture. The difference now is that we’re more visible.”
Growing up in Bethesda, Md., Mayer experienced his share of “typical suburban homophobia: being called faggot, being shoved every day in the hall, things written on my locker.” Luckily, his parents were supportive. “I mean, hello -- when I was 8, I woke up one morning to find the double-album
Judy at Carnegie Hall on my pillow.”
Those memories of gay adolescence will come in handy next spring when Mayer directs John C. Russell’s
Stupid Kids, “a queer re-telling of
Rebel without a Cause featuring two gay teenagers, a boy and a girl, who form a union that is their safe haven in a world that is at best indifferent and at worst really hostile.” Lest anyone pigeonhole him as one kind of director, though, Mayer’s also working with lesbian playwright Paula Vogel
(How I Learned to Drive) on a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
The Advocate, February 17, 1998