When most people hear the name Monica Lewinsky, they think of one word, and it’s not
handbag. Similarly, when the subject of kilts comes up these days, it inevitably conjures the legend that Scotsmen traditionally don’t wear anything underneath. Canadian actor-turned-playwright
Jonathan Wilson clearly had the association of skirt-over-naked-penis in mind when he titled his new play
The show, which had a successful run in Toronto in 1999 and is currently having a commercial run off-Broadway, cleverly aims to capture not one but two niche markets: connoisseurs of live male nudity and those who get teary-eyed at the sound of bagpipes and the sight of tartan. And the play itself capitalizes on the collision of those two cultures.
Esther Robertson (Tovah Feldshuh) is a Scottish immigrant who teaches Highland dance in a minimall in Hamilton, Ont., though her job security is threatened by Canadian multiculturalism. “I may have to close the school,” she laments. “Everyone’s gone Irish on me.” Her son, Tom (Chris Payne Gilbert), used to be her prize pupil until (a) he
came out and (b) he got sick of her tyrannical enforcement of the strict traditions of the dance form (no smiling, no personal expression). Now he’s an exotic entertainer at a gay bar, and his gimmick is that he dances in and eventually out of the kilt previously worn by his grandfather. When the call comes that the grandfather has died, Esther drags Tom back to Glasgow to pay respects. Flashback scenes depict the grandfather, Mac (also played by Gilbert), conducting a
discreet affair with an officer while stationed in the North African desert during World War II. Past and present come together at the funeral when Mac’s elderly ex-lover, David (Herb Foster), shows up to teach Tom that his generation didn’t invent homosexuality.
This is the type of commercial comedy whose corny jokes and formulaic plotting have never interfered with its popularity. It’s been a staple of gay drama since Stonewall, from
Norman, Is That You? up through The Sum of Us and
Visiting Mr. Green, though Kilt is updated to an age when PFLAG hangs posters at the small-town A&P. From
the minute Tom takes the stage for his nightclub act, you know Mom’s going to walk in just when he flashes the merchandise. Her starchy outrage and his flamboyant defiance become tiresomely predictable, and we guess the family secrets long before they get exposed. Luckily, the
secondary characters of David and Esther’s sister Mary
(Kathleen Doyle) repeatedly upend expectations, with both comic and dramatic benefits.
Feldshuh and Gilbert pump as much life as they can into
two- dimensional characters. And the story of abiding love between two men against all odds still manages to jerk some real tears out of people like me who are usually resistant to sentimental manipulation. It’s testimony to how hungry we are for depictions of loving gay relationships, which is why even plays like
Kilt continue to have value.
May 7, 2002