217 Boxes has Much to Say

Sometimes in order to move forward you have to look back at where you come from. For the gay community this is especially true. Thanks to Dr. John Fryer homosexuality was removed as a mental disease in 1972 by the American Psychological Association. 217 Boxes of Dr, Henry Anonymous tells the story of this extraordinary liberator for gay people everywhere.

This story isn’t your conventional narrative, it’s told from three perspectives. The first comes from a man, Alfred Gross. He was a owner of a”’social organization”, which helped homosexual men in the times before Dr. Fryer made his public statement. Gross asked Fryer to provide his psychiatric services for people suffering from oppression due to their “problem” (as it was seen back then). The second account of Dr. Fryer is told from the viewpoint on his secretary for 24 years, Katherine Luder. Luder describes her affairs (completely platonic) with the doctor beginning from after the 1972 proclamation up until her death during the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s. The third view point is poignantly told from Fryer’s father, Ercel. Ercel delivers a touching eulogy from beyond the grave about his brave son and how he came to accept him (even if it was after his death).

This is a hard play. Not because of the history it contains or the acting, but because of its shape. It’s three characters delivering monologues, one after another. Each actor speaks for about 20 to 25 minutes, requiring non stop active listening on part of the audience. This is not to say that the actors are not fabulous in their time on stage, they are! Derek Lucci plays Alfred with great pin-ash. He is flamboyant, yet endearing. He does not miss a beat and speaks directly to us pointedly. It is as if Lucci is looking into our souls, pleading for acceptance and understanding. And due to his commanding performance, we are more than ready to give it to him. Next up is Laura Esterman, playing Katherine Luder. Esterman has an unique delivery and plays with tempo masterfully. Her pauses are always marked with an emotional turning point in her recount of her experience with the doctor. Then, Ken Marks brings it home with his powerful reading of excerpts of the letter that his son wrote the APA. His journey from start to finish is the most profound, rendering him unforgettable! Marks transformation on stage brought me to tears a few times.

Despite the challenges of the script, this is a good strong ensemble and they deserve to be seen. They work their butts off and are enjoying every minute of it, which makes us want to listen to them. You could literally hear a pin drop throughout the entire 70 minute show. We breathed when they breathed, laughed when they laughed, and cried when they cried. Yes, you have to be a willing participant and pay close attention to get all that playwright and director, Ain Gordon has packed into this script. Although sometimes too poetic and highly intellectual in its writing, there are several moments of pure magic where the audience, actor, and writer connect making this an important and aesthetically pleasing piece of theater. They have something worthwhile to say, which is a treat for the Off-Broadway community. So if they have something important to say, who are we not to listen?

217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous plays May 3-May 11, 2018 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th. http://217boxes.com

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