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A CurtainUp Review
The Jocker

By Christopher Murray

One sunny day in the month of May, a jocker he came hiking,
He come to a tree and 'Ah!' says he, 'This is just to my liking.'
On the very same month on the very same day, a Hoosier's son came hiking.
Said the bum to the son, 'O, will you come to the Big Rock Candy Mountain?'

— Alan Lomax's Folk Songs of North America.
The Jocker
(left) Michael Lazar as Shakespeare, (right) Jason Alan Griffin as Bama
(Photo: Carol Rosegg & Peter Lau)
The set for the Wings Theatre production of The Jocker, a heartfelt new drama by Clint Jeffries looks like it could do double duty for a Samuel Beckett play. A chain link and barbed wired-topped fence divides a hobo camp strewn with detritus: broken barrels, rusted tools, dented washtubs, stacks of old railroad ties and an empty liquor bottle or two. The theatrical landscape is one of broken down and discarded domestic fragments. Echoes of Godot intensify by the arrival of a stern-faced, unshaven vagrant in a piss-elegant dusty bowler hat and his cringing helpmeet scampering behind him.

Like the iconic Estragon and Vladimir, Biloxi Billy (Stephen Cabral) and Nat (Nick Mathews) are an odd couple thrown together by the vicissitudes of fate into an abusive marriage of inconvenience. It's 1931 near Flagstaff, Arizona and various drifters are congregating near the railyards in the hopes of finding work on a nearby spur. Billy is scheming to achieve a windfall by knocking over the Pinkerton security agents, or bulls, who guard the payroll coming in on the timber truck. So, the Beckett landscape morphs into a Dashiell Hammett-esque grifter crime tale of the Depression. But wait, the abusive Oliver Hardy smacking around the shivering Stan Laurel story changes yet again when Billy places his meaty hand inside the patched overalls that barely cover Nat's pale boyish body. It becomes clear that Billy and Nat are a jocker and his punk, one of those strange sexual couplings that occur when groups of men are separated from womenfolk by dire economic circumstance, or perhaps by predilection as well.

The Jocker admirably tries to rescue some of the little known pre-Stonewall mythology of gay life from the dustbins of history. Three male couples are thrust together to exemplify the sort of relationships that men who would most likely identify as gay today might find themselves in back then.

In contrast to the almost master/slave dynamic between Billy and Nat, Bama (Jason Alan Griffin) and Shakespeare (Michael Lazar) have built a genuine partnership based on mutual attraction and support. Dodger (David Tacheny), proudly showing off his wedding ring and speaking lovingly of his wife back home, nevertheless finds comfort for a time with Lucky (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an African American man who has resorted to prostitution to survive.

The fate of the three couples becomes intertwined with tragic consequences when Nat's desire to escape Billy's abusive yoke runs afoul of the poorly planned robbery. The obvious melodrama of the plot, with Biloxi Billy an almost moustache-twirling villain, somewhat clunkily serves the writer's purpose of excavating forgotten homo history and to comment on the still physically and emotionally perilous lives of gay men.

The Wings Theatre run on a shoestring, pulls off a minor miracle in producing a year-round season of new plays and musicals, a sizeable proportion manifestly about the gay experience. The all-volunteer company's passion for its work is obvious and evident in the work of Artistic Director Jeffrey Corrick and his team. A precious matchstick placed in the band of a thriftstore fedora is a telling detail of L.J. Kleeman's period outfits and you can almost smell the sun-baked dust of William Ward's set and feel the heat courtesy of Eric Larson's lighting.

The actors for their part demonstrate complete commitment to their hardscrabble characters. Jason Alan Griffin's slanting, mistrustful eyes and flat Alabama drawl rings true, as does David Tacheny's wiping the mouth of a mason jar half full of moonshine after sharing it with his newfound black friend. Shiny-eyed Nick Matthews playing younger than his age is required to approach near hysteria several times during the action and will likely gain more technical facility as an actor over time, but deserves credit for finding and revealing the desperation in his character's situation. Stephen Tyrone Williams' Lucky is preternaturally smooth and philosophical given the character's circumstances, but appealing nonetheless.

The Jocker comes to the Wings with a prestigious history. It won First Prize in the John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Awards and was also a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference Competition and in the South Carolina Playwrights' Festival, as well as a semi-finalist in the Bloomington Playwrights' Project. Clint Jeffries dialogue is full of authentic period slang (like "gay cat" for someone not used to riding the rails, or "slave market" for labor agency) , but it's the way he shows how easily relationships can tip from nurturing to exploitative and how frequently the roles of dominator and submitter can flip, that packs the punch here. Some of the simplest moments in the play are the most moving.

As affecting as The Jocker often is, the prochronisms, meaning those elements that could not credibly have existed at the time portrayed, tend to rankle a little. Some of the characters' talk about their situation smacks of our therapized age more than 1931. even so, The Jocker, is a powerful story compellingly told.

By Clint Jeffries
Directed by Jeffrey Corrick
Cast: Stephen Cabral (Biloxi Billy), Nick Matthews (Nat), Jason Alan Griffin (Bama), Michael Lazar (Shakespeare), David Tacheny (Dodger), Stephen Tyrone Williams (Lucky), James Bullard (Shakespeare- Understudy).
Sets: William Ward
Costumes: L.J. Kleeman
Lights: Eric Larson
Running Time: 2 hours includes one intermission
Wings Theatre Company 154 Christopher Street 212-627-2961
From 5/11/07 through 6/9/07; opening 5/21/07
Tickets: $20.
Reviewed by Christopher Murray based on May 18th performance
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