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Theatre Reviews OUT’s story of a gay teen in the 1970s is mostly an exercise in rose-tinged nostalgia

OUT was originally seen at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival and has been remounted for Buddies in Bad Times’s 40th-anniversary season.

Michael Cooper/Handout

  • Title: OUT
  • Written and Performed by: Greg Campbell
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Clinton Walker
  • Company: Big Bappis Productions
  • Venue: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
  • City: Toronto

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My late uncle, who came out of the closet in the 1970s, would have loved OUT, Greg Campbell’s sweet, upbeat solo show about being gay in that exhilarating decade – post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. Yes, my uncle could tell you it wasn’t all disco, drag and drugs. Homophobia was still pervasive and gay rights virtually non-existent. But it was a hopeful time, too.

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Queer culture had begun to infiltrate the mainstream, through music (disco, glam rock) and movies (Midnight Cowboy, The Boys in the Band). The first pride parades were being staged. And while you still had to hide your orientation to get by in the wider world, if you were a lucky kid like Campbell’s hero, Glen, you could find a growing gay community in which to be yourself and thrive.

OUT, originally seen at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival and now remounted for Buddies in Bad Times’s 40th-anniversary season, is actor-playwright Campbell’s semi-autobiographical memoir of that era. It focuses particularly on one momentous year – 1977 – in the life of his fictional alter ego.

Glen is a 17-year-old living with his parents in the Montreal suburb of Châteauguay. He’s not yet out to his mom and dad – hard-drinking Irish immigrants – but he already has a gay best friend, Mario, and the two are as promiscuous as any hormone-driven teenagers. They escape the suburbs on weekends to party at a popular downtown club with its own gay bar.

When Glen begins his first year at Vanier College, he meets the moody Dimitri, a Greek film geek. Although Dimitri is still lingering in the closet, he introduces Glen and Mario to The Boys in the Band. That movie of Mart Crowley’s landmark play is an epiphany for Glen – and Campbell does such delicious impersonations of its archetypal gay characters that you want to rewatch it there and then. (And if you’ve never seen it, do – it’s on YouTube.)

Other men enter our young hero’s life, including a lisping bisexual Englishman whose bed is never empty and an American bodybuilder who favours feminine boys. Glen joins a gay youth group and takes part in protesting the born-again Christian singer and orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant, whose crusade against homosexuals has inspired an OJ boycott.

At home, he swoons over Donna Summer and episodes of Norman Lear’s mock soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – much to his drunken father’s disgust. The growing tensions between him and the old man come to a head after Glen and his friends take a trip to New York to march in the pride parade.

Campbell, a veteran of multiple-role juggling from his years with the VideoCabaret ensemble, plays some 25 characters with practised ease. Under Clinton Walker’s nimble direction, he leaps exuberantly about the Buddies Cabaret stage, switching voices and postures with a quick turn of the head. His only misstep is a satirical routine where Glen impersonates Bryant, complete with ugly bouffant wig (designed by Alice Norton), and conducts an awkward audience singalong to a dreadful ditty called Kill a Queer for Christ.

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Although Campbell touches on some of the difficulties of being a gay kid back then, OUT is mostly an exercise in rose-tinged nostalgia. Anyone who lived through the era will get a kick out of its references to such queer cultural touchstones as Patricia Nell Warren’s novel The Front Runner and that comically macho disco group the Village People, whose Native American member, Felipe Rose, is the subject of Glen’s wet dreams.

Then there’s The Boys in the Band. I remember my uncle, like Glen, bubbling with excitement after seeing it for the first time. Campbell quotes a famous line from it not once, but twice: “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.” For gay men in the western world, the seventies marked a shift away from that kind of shame and self-loathing, toward self-acceptance and pride. The latter are embodied in Glen, whose shiny-eyed enthusiasm is endearing, but also a little bland. A stronger play would give us a better sense that, in 1977, the battles for gay tolerance, far from being won, were only just beginning.

OUT continues to May 5. (buddiesinbadtimes.com)

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