Allow me, if you will, to get the unpleasantries out of the way right away, so that I can expound upon the virtues of New Ground Theatre's debuting drama Under the Radar. The play, inspired by the local gay scene in the late 1970s, isn't eloquent in its verbiage or impressively acted; the dialogue is amateurishly written; and for the most part, the individual performances are adequate, at best.
Fortunately, though, the employment of news, game-show, and other TV-programming clips from 1978 provides context for the social environment of the time, and elevates the piece to a place of educational significance.
Written and directed by Chris Jansen, Under the Radar mainly focuses on two narratives. One involves David (Don Faust), who works with his partner, Stu (Pat Flaherty), and must be careful not to reveal his sexuality for fear of losing his job merely for being gay. The secondary plot involves Jessie (Johanna Welzenbach), a married woman who is having an affair with another woman, Barb (Donna Weeks).
As noted in the play's program, the storylines were culled from Jansen's interviews with gay individuals who lived in the Quad Cities in the 1970s. The details may have been changed, but the events that unfold on stage, we're told, actually took place, with local cruising spots, gay bars, and other area settings mentioned during the show. That being the case, it was as much fun to watch Thursday night's audience react to, and whisper about, the familiar references - to say nothing of their old friends shown in the video clips - as it was to watch and hear the references themselves. The multimedia experience, for me, made the overall experience of the play worthwhile.
These clips include a local news story, a Barbara Walters interview with Harvey Fierstein, a locally produced panel discussion on homosexuality, and even a segment from The Gong Show, and they provide the necessary context for the public atmosphere in which David and Jessie are living. It's a smart decision on Jansen's part to include them, as it also shapes the way in which the audience views the scenes - not through the eyes of current social beliefs, but with an understanding of what these men and women faced in the late '70s. I actually learned a thing or two about the local gay community and the culture as it was four decades ago, and the fact that I gained new knowledge was, to me, the greatest value of seeing Under the Radar.
Jansen's decision to avoid period costuming is also worth mentioning. While there are nods to '70s attire, no one here is really in full disco-era garb. In the program, Jansen notes her intention to fashion her play as a timeless piece, featuring truths that remain true beyond the plot's time frame. And while I think the content is dated, in that its viewpoints have significantly changed over the past 40 years, Jansen's choice makes sense - it creates a "we're all in this together" feel to the play. As an audience member, I didn't get the sense that I was merely observing a piece of the past, and disconnected from it completely. Mixed with the Quad Cities references, Jansen's this-could-happen-anytime approach gave me the feeling that Under the Radar reveals a part of my continuing history as a Quad Citian. There is something to take away from this play, even if it's something as simple as realizing how far we've come without forgetting where we've been.
As much as I liked New Ground Theatre's Under the Radar, the play itself isn't great. The overall concept and execution of it, though, are fascinating, and while it wouldn't rank as one of my favorite shows, I do count it as one of my favorite theatre experiences. For all of the work's flaws, Jansen has successfully created a "slice of life" look at '70s gay life in the Quad Cities, permitting the audience a true taste of that existence.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.