Review: JACK AND AIDEN by Lane Michael Stanley and Tova Katz, Ground Floor Theatre, November 30 - December 16, 2023
by David Glen Robinson
Ground Floor Theatre in east Austin has just presented the world premiere of an important musical. A collaboration of Lane Michael Stanley (book) and Tova Katz (music and lyrics), Jack and Aiden explores the lives of two gays, one cis, one trans, caught up in the life of hook-ups and cyber technology, where hooking up is easy and falling apart is easier. The couple’s emotions and desires draw them closer into a relationship; and that’s a problem.
Two attractive actors provide a positive, almost ethnographic depiction of one refraction of twenty-first century urban gay life. The characters quickly drill down past the everyday gay ghetto to the sub-sub-culture of hook-up practitioners who practically exist in their cyber technology and the on-line world.
The setting is the urban gay village--post-Stonewall, post-AIDS, post-Covid 19—where people meet anonymously through texts, transmitting emojis and avatars and a few photographs in search of conquests and climax. But don’t think of the place as a cluster of thatched huts amid skyscrapers. The urban gay village is a complete culture within larger society, a place of mind. Its members share values, principally sexual, that are opposed to the values of those outside the village. Most of its denizens are post-AIDS barebackers and babes in the woods. They signal each other constantly through fashions, styling, emojis, avatars, images of desire, and most importantly, language. The semiotic and symbolic flow is rapid and constant.
Enough sociology. The core brilliance of Jack and Aiden is the creators' capture of that flow, which they then hurl into their script. The actors and director Trace Turner treat the script as a commitment, give the piece a galloping pace, and never let up. Assisting it all are projections of texts, emojis, and avatars on several onstage screens, courtesy of Patrick Anthony (lighting design), Micah Mabey (video design), Zac Crofford (video programmer and scenic lead), and Connor Hopkins (scenic lead). The musical is altogether a great credit to Stanley and Katz. Stanley is a master of the detailed hook-up/gay patois filling his script, although sometimes terminology escapes those on the outside (What’s PNP, Frodo? A three-way?). Credit to him for the book of this musical is huge. With time, his Jack and Aiden will outshine his well-regarded Rain Falls Special on Me.
Stanley, Katz, and their script rush past one element where they should have paused and taken recognition. The characters represent neither all gays nor all trans. They are not cutouts standing in for entire classes of people. But all playwrights of realistic bent condense the experiences of many into a few manageable characters. The intense focus on this corner of the gay and trans worlds, although bright and colorful and full of tragedy and hope (the staples of all drama), should make it clear that the attitudes and practices of the characters are those of a minority of those in the same groups. Not everyone is a resident of the urban gay village. Not everyone in the wider subculutres would share the hook-up values of those portrayed. Unfortunately, that recognition is not a stop or even a pause on Stanley’s and Katz’s journey. For those in Jack and Aiden's world of secrets and freedom, the rules, especially linguistic rules, can be strict. Understand that a little coarsening is inevitable. For the word "dating," substitute the words hooking up. For the word "sex," substitute the word fucking. For the words "partner" or "mate," substitute the word buddy. For the word "love," . . . well, don’t even start with the word "love."
One of the first lessons of the play is that by the time one has learned to navigate the gay meat market, one has become the meat. That doesn’t happen until the callouses on one’s psyche match the callouses on one’s genitals. We don’t progress much into the play before things become more than a little grisly. The story of Jack, (he/him) establishes that much early on. He is the experienced cis-male gay (not involved in transgenderism); he's in recovery, however, with a pat answer for everything, expressed in urban gay lingo. Newly transitioned Aiden, (he/him), is thoroughly seduced and is exploring the hook-up life with Jack as his open-access partner. Jack was Aiden’s discovery in his first on-line hook-up experience.
The story of Jack (he/him, enacted by Justin P. Lopez, he/him) is one of multiple rehabs while mastering the hook-up lifestyle and living life with Aiden. Jack illuminates the theme of focusing too narrowly on one slice of life and failing to develop the skills needed to deal with the larger issues. When he meets adversity, he relapses. The voice of addiction is compelling, telling him in every setback that it offers something that will solve the problem. That solution is always meth. And that clearly brings us to one of the best songs of the show, “Flying,” where Jack sings and acts of feeling and being “amazing.” He sings out of his drug high. The song is a bold choice for musical theatre production, especially in our current time of the fentanyl crisis, the worst of which we in 2023 probably have not yet seen. It is instructive to hear, in the fine arts, what it means to be on a serious, life-threatening drug high. Audiences of privilege are rarely exposed to such states.
One of the play’s themes is of inadequate preparation, and it involves Jack’s aging mother. Rather than preparing for her advanced care, Jack frets with Aiden about what he doesn’t want to show her about his and Aiden’s activities. A huge additional issue is Aiden’s trans status, and the couple's difficulty breaking it to Mom that trans people can’t reproduce. Mom was hoping . . . In some respects, life was moving forward for Mom, but not for Jack. Further, Jack’s reluctance to explain trans status to Mom plays to Aiden like an attitude of embarrassment at inferiority or “damaged goods.” Aiden spotlights it instantly. The impression that Jack thinks of Aiden as “less than” emerges as one of the critical fissures in their relationship. We never get the sense that Jack breaks the addiction/rehab cycle with any finality.
Aiden (he/him), played by Laura Leo Kelly (they/them) mentions his family briefly, late in the play, mentioning that his sister is hovering near to spend time with him. The implication is that the family is slowly coming to grips with Aiden’s trans identity, and that their own family transition was difficult as well. Aiden makes the trans leap all the way. Then, like so many, Aiden finds that not all things become new upon transition. His grievous loss to death of a pre-transition partner comes back in dreams, anxiety, and depression to haunt the new Aiden. In a positive, change-increasing feedback loop, the trauma worsens into more frequent panic attacks that leave Aiden increasingly unresponsive and unaware of his location and surroundings. This happens, as it often does in wider society, when Aiden faces the challenge of seriously planning for a marriage with Jack. Aiden had been doing the same with the partner he lost. This is a blast from the past like few others.
In marvelous symmetry, Aiden sings of his debilitating panic attacks from the inside, in “54321.” The number starts with the recognition of the onset of an attack. Aiden tries to exercise the self-therapy tool of seeing 5 things, hearing 4 sounds, seeing 3 colors, etc., to keep the mind in reality as feelings of desperation threaten to take control. That tactic fails. Aiden and the lyrics go on for paragraphs and pages of uncontrolled kaleidoscopic imagery, a vast mosaic of runaway perceptions at a very fine stitch. Laura Leo Kelly delivered the number flawlessly on opening night while enacting their descent into oblivion. Tova Katz has the credit for lyrics, so kudos to them and to Kelly.
Such a debilitating condition will tax any mature relationship, so of course Jack cannot not deal with it. He leaves, presumably for drinks and drugs. In symmetry, too, when Aiden finds Jack on the floor Code Blue from a possible heart or drug emergency, Aiden calls 911, waits for Jack to wake up, and summarily leaves. Minimal fortitude, but some. Aiden originally came to Jack for the sense of security and emotional support, but now none of that summed to staying power.
The two had discussed disparagingly the idea of being friends with benefits after their mutual senses of betrayal, but events made it clearhat neither was capable of even that level of connection. That insight eluded them, and the turmoil continued. The risky hook-ups continued. A lasting impression of the play, one of many, is that these young gay people were leading with their genitals instead of with the armaments of mature adults—heart, mind, and caution.
The musical portfolio alone, directed by Trey Shonkwiler, was worth the ticket price. The skilled six-piece ensemble, strings with keyboard and drums, performed live and flawlessly on opening night. A loud feedback squeal late in the show probably was not the band’s doing or responsibility. Other that at that one moment, voice and song were crystal clear throughout. The brilliance of the lyrics, as mentioned, is credited to Tova Katz.
Jack and Aiden is a musical tragedy of the urban village. The stage performance finishes on an upward note that is merely a trite attempt at a happy ending, for the outlook for all, even with insights gained, is for more of the same risky instability. In this sense, the apparently free, liberated characters onstage and off are living in provincial confinement little different from that of any small village. Value systems of the larger society are firmly rejected. Much is given up for the sake of freedom.
The opening night audience affirmed the linguistic truth of the characters; to the audience, this was real language, talk they could hear around the corner and down the block in their neighborhoods, including and especially the gay sexual details. The play depicted the village in which many of them live, conveyed largely with the scripted language. Kudos to Lane Michael Stanley and Tova Katz for writing Jack and Aiden with their ears as much as with their word processors.
Lane Michael Stanley has created not only a work of art with Jack and Aiden but also a research study in sociolinguistics, the branch of linguistic anthropology that studies how language is conditioned by society and society is conditioned in turn by its members. The members struggle to navigate social groups, gain membership, enhance personal power, and negotiate and change roles within the target group. In adult reality there are always inequalities of success and failure. In this case, the society under the microscope is Jack and Aiden's gay hook-up milie , depicted smoothly, adroitly, and knowingly by the creators of Jack and Aiden. To repeat, this play may rightfully be viewed someday as Lane Michael Stanley’s apex work in playwriting. With Tova Katz he has written a testament to time and place that is very clearly our own time and place.
Jack and Aiden is for the deepest thinking theatre mavens out there, those who'll lose all street cred if they miss it. The extremely coarse language and depictions of sex in several scenes render it thoroughly inappropriate for anyone under the age of eighteen.
Kudos as well to Ground Floor Theatre, Lisa Scheps, and Patti Neff Tiven, who commissioned Jack and Aiden as their yearly musical for 2023. This work promises to be one of the peaks of the 2023-2024 theatre season in Austin.
November 30 - December 16, 2023
979 Springdale Rd
Austin, TX, 78702
Performances are November 30 – December 16, 2023 at Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale Road, Suite 122, Austin, TX at the corner of Springdale and Airport.
Performances are Thursday through Saturday nights at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 5:00 PM. The “First Friday” performance on December 1 includes a reception. Streaming performances will be available December 14 & 15.
Ground Floor Theatre believes in “theatre for everyone” regardless of ability to pay, so tickets are always Pay What You Can. Suggested ticket prices are $30 for general admission and $45 for VIP. VIP seating includes a reserved seat, a glass of bubbly and the assurance of helping GFT keep the Pay What You Can policy.
Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at groundfloortheatre.org/jack