"You have girl lips." That's the weighted observation made by one teenage boy to another at the beginning of A Queer Kiss, a half-teasing, half-flirtatious comment that catalyzes a whole lot of emotional turmoil.
Bret (Daniel Doyle) and Scott (Matthew Hager) are both drama students and seniors in high school. Like most teenagers, they grapple with issues of identity, independence and self-worth, and come into conflicts with their parents. When the two kiss backstage and like it, their sexualities and internalized homophobia come to a head.
A Queer Kiss, which made its world premiere in Chapel Hill last weekend, was developed in January as part of Deep Dish Theater's New Play Workshop. Playwright Joel Drake Johnson drew upon his own experiences as a high school drama teacher in Chicago, where he witnessed the harassment of a gay student. A Queer Kiss strives to show that this type of discrimination is still commonplace—and can have deadly consequences.
Homophobia and bullying are important subjects that deserve to be dealt with in a frank and nuanced manner. Commendably, Johnson attempts to contextualize these issues in a way that has universal reach by focusing on Bret and Scott's difficult relationships with their parents. Under the direction of Paul Frellick, MaryKate Cunningham shines with warmth and vulnerability as Scott's mother, Lynn, and Catherine Rodgers gives a strong performance as Bret's mother, Cheryl, a woman torn between her natural love for her son and her distaste for his rude teenage treatment of her.
But A Queer Kiss still plays like a work in progress when it comes to the characterization of Bret and Scott, both of whom feel more like stereotypes than individuals. That's not the fault of the actors: Doyle masters the insecurity and surliness required of Bret, and Hager is appropriately wide-eyed and dramatic as Scott. But the play doesn't allow us into the boys' heads or hearts in a way that feels natural. Too much exposition is conveyed in stilted conversations between the boys and their parents, and Scott's over-the-top recitations of Shakespeare and a Sylvia Plath poem—video recordings made alone in his room, on his iPad—lack necessary context and motivation.
The result is that A Queer Kiss feels more like A Dramatic Play With an Important Message than a genuine reflection of a prejudiced society, embodied through two full-bodied teenagers. As scenes fluctuate between the boys' perspective and that of their parents, the drama escalates too quickly—more telling than showing. (Cheryl instructs her son to "Cool it, mister!" when he's not particularly worked up; Lynn tells her ex-husband to stop talking in "lawyer-speak," when it doesn't actually sound that way.)
Hopefully, these script problems will be straightened out as the play undergoes further revisions; the scenes that do succeed powerfully evoke the struggles between parents and adolescents to understand one another, and the difficulties of being gay in a society where homophobia is still insidiously present.
Correction:This review originally identified MaryKate Cunningham and Catherine Rodgers as playing, respectively, Bret's mother Lynn and Scott's mother Cheryl.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hand in glove."