"Don't Ask" takes a long, leering look at gays in the military

When "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" became official U.S. policy in 1993, many Americans regarded it as a perfectly reasonable way to handle the presence of gays in the military. Seriously, why would you want to talk about being gay in the first place? Just keep your mouth shut, queer.

These days, you don't have to be a wizard to recognize that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a failure by any rational standard. The active encouragement of denial is hardly an effective strategy for recruiting and managing people. As a gay man I may, of course, lack some special insight into the finer points of heterosexual warmongering, but from where I stand, it looks very much like a mean-spirited attempt to assuage the irrational fears of sexually insecure assholes.

Don't Ask, now making its West Coast premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, doesn't attempt a direct critique of the military's policy toward gays. Bill Quigley's drama instead focuses on the human toll exacted by near-constant repression. To neither ask nor tell anyone about your sex life is to return to the silence of the closet, a place where sex becomes shameful and unspoken — nothing but a series of sidelong glances and forbidden assignations in abandoned restrooms. Or, as Quigley puts it: "There's always a park. A park in the dark."

The play is not subtle. As the lights come up, a U.S. Army private named Bobby (Adrian Anchondo) is getting quietly cornholed by his commanding officer (Ryan Hough). They're in an empty stockroom somewhere in Iraq, illuminated only by the overhead lights of Maya Linke's harshly effective set. The sergeant has a family back home in Deer Falls, Ohio, and he likes to imagine that his relationship with Bobby is purely contextual. "This is just something strange that's happened because we're in a strange country," he says.

The private disagrees. "You've invaded me, and now I'm yours," Bobby tells him, drawing a clear parallel between sexual conquest and imperial expansion. That parallel becomes a little too obvious when Quigley introduces a subplot about the rape of an Iraqi prisoner recounted in such lurid, loving detail that it's unclear how horrified we're supposed to be.

Meanwhile, just in case things weren't porny enough already, Bobby keeps begging the sergeant to tap his ass a second time in the stockroom. The play's strenuous preoccupation with sex appears to be a critique of the chronic dysfunction engendered by the closet. But the overheated dialogue — as when Bobby refers to "the hottest molten lava cum-storm that has ever been summoned by a man" — downgrades some of the play's action from serious drama to elaborately staged fetish, obscuring Quigley's smartest insights. (I should also point out that if you're experiencing anything like a "molten lava cum-storm," you probably ought to get that checked.)

With a little editing and a lot more restraint, Don't Ask could be a powerful piece of theater. Quigley creates a compelling dynamic between his two soldiers: the sergeant is an uptight and reticent control freak, eager to keep his affair on the down-low. Bobby, meanwhile, is a puckish, self-aware riddler who actively entertains elaborate fantasies of making a home in Deer Falls. "I was gonna be a poet, but I came here instead," he says, which might explain why he has such an overdeveloped vocabulary. He recognizes how little he has in common with his comrades, many of whom are "fat-fuck dropouts who got fired from Krispy Kreme." And when the sergeant insists that he and Bobby don't "make love," Bobby offers the play's most darkly funny rebuttal: "Yes, we do. I have the bruises to prove it."

In the balance of power between these two very different people, Bobby is the unknown quantity. A less competent actor wouldn't know what to do with the character's instant shifts in mood, but Anchondo, making his San Francisco theater debut, is better than director Ben Randle could have possibly hoped. Sure, he looks fantastic with his clothes off, but that's just gravy — the guy is simply a magnetic performer. Though he is saddled with a few very unlikely speeches, he tosses them off convincingly enough that they often work in spite of themselves. And perhaps most importantly, he gives Bobby a frightening instability that keeps the production loose and unpredictable.

Bobby's instability makes sense, considering that he doesn't occupy an acknowledged category within the world of the military. Saddled with a love that dare not speak its name, he attempts to make social sense of his desires, channeling them in ways that approximate what he knows to be acceptable. He's an imperfect creation in an imperfect play, but he's awfully persuasive in his twisted, needy way. In 10 or 20 years, with Proposition 8 repealed and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" consigned to the dustheap of military misjudgments, he may seem downright alien. Until then, though, we're stuck with him.

The play's final moment is a mistake, leaving us with one of the silliest cliffhangers I've seen. It's an extreme example of Quigley's tendency to go for shock over substance, and it sends the audience into the lobby asking questions that are completely beside the point. "If you don't wanna know, don't ask," Bobby keeps saying throughout the play. If that's really how you feel, then why keep asking the question?

 
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