Had Evan Linder not already penned a Chicago-and-New York hit titled "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche," you might say he'd come up with an unusual title with "The Bear Suit of Happiness." But Linder is an unconventional writer, mostly preferring to work with his close compatriots at The New Colony rather than slogging through the usual new-play-development process at the bigger theaters in town. The results invariably are fascinating. And so it goes at the Dank Haus, a frayed but resonant Lincoln Square venue that feels like a mess hall — and thus is quite the match for this moody, beguiling little play.
"Bear Suit" is a new Linder work about a tight-knit group of gay American soldiers during World War II who are offered the opportunity to put up a drag show — that form of entertainment being popular at the time with the mainstream GI population. That brings up numerous issues, most notably the question as to whether this is a moment for actual self-revelation, dangerous as that might be, or deeper self-suppression. Clearly, the show will have to be amusing — "if everyone is laughing, we can't get in trouble" — but it's by no means clear just how good a drag show this one can afford to be. And, as a corollary, what about that straight soldier with a talent for the art? Should he be allowed to join the company? As one of the guys notes, not so much unwelcoming as worried, "he's not one of us."
Although Linder is careful to chart the homophobic environment in which his characters must live and work, he also imbues these young, gay servicemen with great empathy for their straight comrades: everyone is well aware that this drag show may be the last show that some in the audience will ever get to see. In such circumstances, a performer performs.
"We are," they say, "divine mutations."
It's a very potent scenario, made all the more intense by the richness of Linder's language and the way the director, Sean Kelly, stages the entire, one-set play on a platform that looks no more than about 10 square feet. The only scenery is a backdrop, the only notable costume element, the titular bear suit. Talk about two planks and a passion. Aside from a melancholy piano tinkling in the rear, that's all the actors have by way of help.
And yet the cast — made up of Pat Coakley, Ryan Jarosch, Andrew Hobgood and Michael Peters — creates a richly involving group of nervous characters and, therefore, a moving collective portrait of lives caught between the lure of the spotlight and the safety of the shadows. This is a piece that stays with you.
"The Bear Suit" still needs work — it does not yet have an ending that works, it can meander, it is at least 20 minutes too long, and it needs to better integrate music into the piece. It also could use a full-on, drop-dead performance, which the likes of Jarosch, who is excellent, gives every indication of being able to do. His character Norman is a man born a little early but already dreaming of "an impossibly hospitable world" and leaning into a freer tomorrow.
When: Through March 30
Where: Dank Haus, 4740 N. Western Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes