Review: ‘Language Unbecoming a Lady’ at the cell. Far From a Drag.
Thomas Burns Scully
I was listening to an interesting podcast this week about something called the Flynn effect. Roughly boiled down, the Flynn effect states that, contrary to popular belief, people are, on average, getting smarter from generation to generation. It’s a fascinating discussion, and can, with a little wrangling, be applied to a lot of quantifiable societal concepts. People are very quick to dismiss the era we are living in as the worst of the post-industrial epochs, whilst at the same time embracing past decades as being in some way better. Generally speaking, research is proving the reverse. Whilst our age is by no means perfect, quality of life is generally better, racial and gender equality are better and progress on all fronts is likely. Not to mention sexual equality is improving, seemingly almost on a daily basis (despite ready opposition). The Flynn effect, as corresponding to gay rights in Ireland, is what we see in action in ‘Language Unbecoming a Lady’. It is the touching story of an aging drag queen living life through the eras of the illegal, underground gay-scene, all the way up until Ireland’s recent vote to legalize gay marriage.
Myles Breen (also the show’s writer) plays Bobby. Bobby is a seemingly unassuming Irish man who also happens to live a second life as a drag queen called ‘The Divine Diana’. He speaks directly to the audience, telling them the story of his life, occasionally enlisting the schizophrenic assistance of his divine alter-ego. He charts his own progress from camp social misfit, to in-the-closet outcast, through surprise glamour starlet and out-and-somewhat-proud adult, leading up to present day, and his ongoing struggle for societal acceptance and self-acceptance. He relates stories of heartbreak, bullying, terror, love, lying, loneliness, self-discovery, unexpected friendship, cross-dressing mischief and more. Interspersed with these stories are sporadic lip-sync numbers that punctuate Bobby’s emotional journey. It is a fictional tragicomedy, but told along a very real, very accurate timeline, and relating experiences that are unlikely to be complete works of imagination.
Bottom Dog Theatre company first produced this show six years ago, and it has stayed relevant. More impressively, it remains relevant outside of the context of Ireland. The story has Ireland as its back drop, but it wouldn’t take more than a few detail changes to make this the story of a gay man in any part of the Western World. It has a pleasing universality about it, in that, although it is a powerful gay rights piece, it is also, like so many great dramas, a story of self-actualization and self-discovery.
Myles Breen is clearly the James Cameron Mitchell of this piece, in that he has written and performed himself in to this part so well that he seems to be able to put it on like the peach dress the Divine Diana wears. Admittedly, the show has a confusing start. Breen's cross-talk with himself, arguing nbetween the guises of Bobby and Diana takes a bit of time to get used to, and distracts a little from the bawdy camp humor he trying to communicate. But given a shaky beginning, the strength of the writing wins out, and once a status quo is established, Breen is able to tell Bobby’s story with an ease and gentle power that makes him nothing but sympathetic and endearing.
Breen’s observations and recollections on the gay experience in Ireland are heartfelt, and never feel like they’re running roughshod over the truth. Listening to Bobby’s loneliest nights of isolation, then seeing him transition in to an unsuspecting glamour goddess moves you neatly between bereft and cheering at the sidelines. Breen’s lip-syncing to classic show-tunes is daft, but enjoyable and serves as a series of emotional checkpoints for the watcher. And that’s, broadly, what there is to know about the show.
‘Language Unbecoming a Lady’ doesn’t rewrite the book on gay theatre, but then it was never meant to. It’s a deeply personal journey through childhood to middle age as a modern gay Irish man. If anything. it’s a time capsule piece, a bit of theatre that will disappear and re-emerge through the ages, maybe being re-worked, maybe being left as is, as a reminder of how things once were, how far they’ve come, and how far they have left to come. More than that though, its defining feature is optimism, but a realistic optimism. Breen is able to acknowledge a world full of shittiness, but does not allow himself to be mired down in it. And that’s always nice to see. ‘Language’ is highly enjoyable, and unquestionably heartfelt. Worth a look.
‘Language Unbecoming a Lady’ runs at The Cell until September 27th as part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival. It is produced by Bottom Dog Theatre Company. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased at: 1stIrish.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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