Returning after a brief run in the Finborough last autumn, the revival of Martin Sherman’s 1975 play Passing By is making a longer stay at the Tristan Bates, its gay romance, soaked in nostalgia, chronicling a never-to-be-recaptured few months.
Two young men, one a neurotic SoHo artist, one a diver swum aground in New York, waiting to hear back from a radio job, meet, they part, they meet again, progress echoed by a sentimental French song. Then, a slightly less sentimental twist of fate traps them together in the fledgeling artist’s flat. First staged in London by Gay Sweatshop in 1975, Sherman’s play was radical, as his programme notes explain, for showing “a gentle, romantic and loving encounter between two men, in which their gayness was simply a fact – completely easy and open and never a problem.” In New York, he’d battled “the reluctance of interesting young American actors to play ‘happy’ homosexuals”, but in a time when this virtuous happiness is less unusual, though, this virtue becomes a potential pitfall – it’s so happy that not much happens.
Despite the 1972 setting, neither man struggles with his identity, both have had lovers before, the word ‘gay’ is never said. This missing social context is replaced by a lightness of tone, its comedy dependent on the fact that Simon and Toby are polar opposites in almost everything.Toby’s a hypochondriac who calls the doctor over a splinter, while Simon is proud of his body’s swimming-honed invincibility. Simon won’t talk about his feelings and vulnerabilities, while Toby has them on tap. Both actors manage to be infuriating and endearing by turn – Rik Makarem’s twitching, hyperactive Toby has moments of hilarious awkwardness, while James Cartwright plays Simon’s drunken, sloppy unravelling with puppyish charm. Scenes end with a punchline, in NewYork sitcom style – this faint cheesiness is played up by the loud, piped piano jazz by experienced composer Matthew Strachan, skills honed by tv, that plays between them, hot on the actors’ last lines.
For a love story that seldom leaves the bedroom, it’s a chaste affair – Andrew Keates’s direction leaves the passion in Simon and Toby’s initial clinch to fizzle out and settle into something more child-like, beset by bedroom bickering. Lacking much suspense, this needling humour starts to get tiring, especially since both characters are too nice to spring any surprises. Still, there are some edgier moments – like Simon’s story of a one-night-stand with a nineteen-year-old who watched I Love Lucy all the way through – as well as the unusual step of using a sexually transmitted disease as the central point. Written before HIV/AIDS, it’s hard not to think of diseases that can’t be got over by a few weeks in bed – this much darker context has shadowed this play for decades.
Its re-emergence is welcome. Although, firmly lodged in its era, it sometimes settles into stodginess, it feels like a relevant piece of history, and a corrective to decades and decades of bleak, plighted gay stories. For a play whose first staging was such an event, it’s an uneventful story, saved by its gentle, dreamy charm.
Read the Exeunt interview with Martin Sherman.