There's a certain poetic justice in pairing up Robert Patrick with Jack Wrangler; both are products of Hollywood dreams. While Wrangler was raised within the industry, Patrick was its ideal consumer. The only cultural constant throughout his peripatetic Southern childhood, he says, "was the pervasive pop-media web of radio, records, magazines and films."
And it shows in his voice. One of the original "pop" playwrights in the '60s (along with Tom Eyen, Ron Tavel. and H.M. Koutoukas), Patrick littered his plays with loving references to pop culture. He spun fantasies out of pure tinsel, such as
The Richest Girl in the World Finds Happiness and (great title)
Absolute Power Over Movie Stars. And when he created in
Kennedy's Children the character of Carla, the would-be Monroe who boasts, "At 17, with a sense of mission so strong it would make Joan of Arc's look like a whim, I threw myself into Manhattan's lap - head first," he could have had in mind a kid exactly like Jack Wrangler.
On the surface, T-Shirts is merely a comic romp about the gay generation gap. A homely, overweight. middle-aged playwright (Patrick) and his shy, handsome, interior-decorator roommate (Wrangler) welcome a young stray cat (played by Dale Merchant) in from the rain, and the three improvise a wild, witty discourse on gay life and love - similar, in fact, to Patrick's first play
The Haunted Host, only delivered from an older and. if not wiser. then more cynical viewpoint.
At its most ambitious, though, T-Shirts is a schematic attack on the values of the gay male world, charging that money, youth and beauty have become as interchangeable as, well, T-shirts. There’s more truth to this accusation than we may care to admit, though it’s hardly a gay phenomenon; women have always bartered their looks to men for financial security. But in the gay world that Patrick depicts, the exchange is ongoing, cold-blooded and blatantly sexual – which allows the playwright to explore archetypal anxieties about physical attractiveness with a certain raw honesty.
The problem is that Patrick overstates his case, burdening his promising thesis with lugubrious self-pity and padding it with vivid, but patently false, information. His vision of gay life as anti-romantic and intrinsically corrupt turns on a theme of sexual vampirism that can only be described as demented.
"Lover's are like kittens," goes one postulate, "people only pretend they're wonderful in order to pawn them off on other people." Another is that during the Fillmore East's heyday, drugged 20-yearolds would fuck older uptowners for tickets to rock concerts and that eventually 11-year-olds were using the same lure to ball nine-year-olds. This is just nonsense.
Ultimately, the most interesting thing about T-Shirts is the disturbing tension between Patrick's cogent social criticism and his lunatic raving. To his credit, Patrick acknowledges this tension in the play's centerpiece, a long monolog delivered by Marvin, the playwright. He spews his discontent with the gay world in a diatribe studded with savage one-liners ("Telling some kid who's having his first social success as a fist-fuckee that he's plugged into a conglomerate as heartless as Con Ed is as pointlessly cruel as telling a girl from The Bronx that Binaca causes cancer!").
But when the young man Tom agrees with him, he does a stunning turnabout: "If I had the slightest chance of getting in on any of it, you wouldn't hear a peep from me!" This moment is as revealing as anything in the play.
Patrick, who claims he stepped into the role of Marvin because "we couldn't find a funny, fat, 40 fag in New York who would do it," denies that the play is autobiographical. "The difference between me and the real Marvin," he says with a lewd chuckle, "is that he doesn't get any!" But the play's excessive bitterness is inexplicable unless it expresses the pent-up anger of a media child who totally believes the Hollywood myth that glamour
and beauty are the only things worth having. Jack Wrangler bought that myth to the point of literally transforming himself into a sexual icon, but Robert Patrick has internalized it to the point of thinking life's a failure if you're a fat, ugly queen.
Although T-Shirts decries the attitude that "looks are everything," it never questions the validity of making one's appearance the central concern of one's life, nor does it ever suggest that homosexuals live for any other purpose than sex. In its cynicism and self-denigration, the play practically makes
The Boys in the Band look like The Advocate Experience. Nonetheless, it stirs up important emotions and demands in return a passion as strong as its own, even if it's anger or disagreement - and that in itself is a rare and valuable commodity in the theater.
Like Patrick's best work (The Haunted Host, the one-act masterpiece
Runneth Over, the heady morality play Judas), T-Shirts
is carefully written though you wouldn't necessarily know it from the Glines' production which I saw at an early preview performance. It's directed like a nightclub act, with Patrick playing Divine to Wrangler's Brenda Bergman - or rather, in the true tradition of "personality performers," they play themselves.
Wrangler poses beefcake-style, speaks in stagey, oval tones, and changes his T-shirt six times in 90 minutes, while Patrick unleashes his hysterical, flamboyant, show-stealing shtick. This is entertaining as far as it goes, but it keeps the play on the most superficial level, lurching from laugh to laugh with no sense of direction or overall structure.
There is a whole other level to the play (published in William Hoffman’s anthology
Gay Plays) that’s full of realistic drama and well-observed behavior, but all that goes by the wayside when played for broad burlesque. The Circle Rep was supposedly scheduled to premiere
T-Shirts two seasons ago but canceled the production, according to Patrick, because the play was “too homosexual”; it’s tantalizing to imagine how the play would look performed by such a seasoned acting company. Because without a balanced treatment,
T-Shirts just resembles one of those old-fashioned OOB “vehicles” in which ‘50s-style queens live out their movie-star fantasies and the audience leaves saying, “There were some good lines….”
Soho News, April 23, 1980