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Gay, Disabled, and Politically Incorrect

Kate Moira Ryan’s new play gleefully pushes boundaries

Kate Moira Ryan jokes that her latest play could ruin her career. “It could happen,” she laughs. “But if I get skewered, then I get skewered. At least I pushed some limits.”

Anyone who sees Bass for Picasso, now playing at Theatre Row in a production from Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), should leave their sense of political correctness at home. A freewheeling satire of contemporary gay life, the show stages a dinner party gone wildly awry: The kids are in the basement performing naughty plays; there’s canoodling in the bedroom; and the hostess, a food writer and amputee named Francesca, is pitching a fit about the meal.

The play feels edgy because it bluntly tackles sensitive issues—affairs, meth abuse, gay parenting—and because it treats both gay and disabled characters without kid gloves. (TBTB is dedicated to promoting the disabled community through the arts.)

Ryan, who’s known for plays like The Beebo Brinker Chronicles and 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, defends that spikiness. “I think we’ve gotten beyond the Sidney Poitier school of drama, where it’s poor, persecuted gay person or disabled person,” she says.

Regarding the gay community, she adds, “Maybe I opened our closet door and exposed our secrets, but maybe it’s time we just had some fun and let loose. Straight characters get to be impertinent f— ups, so why not gay characters?”

Ike Schambelan, the play’s director and the artistic director of TBTB, sees a larger message is Ryan’s shenanigans. “It’s funny and sad and mean, like a lot of great comedies, but ultimately, it’s a very moral play,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, we’re losing our moral compass here.’”

Meanwhile, the production’s cast pushes just as many boundaries as the script: Anita Hollander, who plays Francesca, is an amputee just like her character, and two other actors (one with hearing loss, one with a prosthetic arm) play characters who are not specifically written as disabled.

“I believe strongly that disabled actors should be playing disabled roles, but they should also be playing roles where it doesn’t matter,” Schambelan says. “Twenty percent of our population is disabled, but you just don’t see that in the theatre.”

For Ryan, casting disabled actors in non-disabled roles was not an issue. “My mother had polio and she walked with a limp, so this is normal for me,” she says. “Why can’t we cast actors with different abilities? Isn’t the audience smart enough to accept that? I figure at a certain point they’re going to stop looking at the actors’ arms and legs and start listening to them.”

Schambelan does concede, however, that it may take a moment to get used to seeing disabled actors on stage. “It still makes me nervous, and I’ve been doing this for years,” he says. “When I’m going onto the stage [to work] with a woman who has a prosthetic, I’m nervous. I’m nervous until I get used to it.”

“I think it’s important for me to own up to my nervousness,” he continues. “If I say to people, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Why are you nervous?’ then they’re more likely to be closed off.”

At the end of the day, of course, neither the script nor the cast are intended to close people off. They’re designed to open our minds.

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

(Photo credit: Dixie Sheridan)

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