By Tray Butler
Photo courtesy of 7 Stages
Are hate crimes a type of terrorism?
Both are frequently associated with religious fanaticism and rooted in bigotry. Even the late Ted Kennedy called hate crimes “a form of domestic terrorism,” bemoaning that America’s endless War on Terror doesn’t apply to violence at home.
But if hate crimes do equal terrorism, why haven’t the gays gone ballistic with calculated counterstrikes? This oxymoronic “war on hate” conceit gets mined (and nearly manhandled) in Topher Payne’s Angry Fags, a button-pushing black comedy built to rankle Republicans and Democrats alike, in a current production at Atlanta's 7 Stages theater. Payne aims rhetorical shotgun blasts at multiple targets—from fundamentalist preachers to compromising gay activists—and can’t help but maim several of them in a play that’s at once witty, dark and disconcerting.
Handsome political speechwriter Bennett (the affable Jacob York) reboots his life after a breakup, moving in with his razor-tongued BFF Cooper (Johnny Drago) and flirting up a sly co-worker, Adam (John Benzinger). When Bennett’s ex-boyfriend is brutally assaulted outside an Atlanta gay bar, the quip-happy roomies quickly shift from Will & Grace to Leopold and Loeb, plotting an increasingly complicated and bloody crusade against the city’s most outspoken anti-gay figureheads.
Payne peppers the dialogue with sharp ruminations on Southern favorites Steel Magnolias and Designing Women; he even manages to make an ongoing Alf joke work. Directed by Justin Anderson, the show’s first half functions in sitcom mode, with perfectly timed laugh lines delivered by Must-See-TV-ready characters (Drago’s swishy Cooper is the evening’s bitchy superstar).
The second act, though, rapidly detours into Dexter territory as its anti-heroes spread their anger from two-faced televangelists to well-intentioned gay politicians and other friends of the movement. The show skewers Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign, suggesting that the promise of the project is false. As one character says, “It gets better—unless you get fat.”
The answer, therefore, is to “make it better,” which Bennett and Cooper take to mean killing hypocrites and bombing buildings. “I’m so sick of trying to be likeable,” Cooper spits. “Change doesn’t come from reason. It comes from fear.” A chilling hostage scenario makes for an unsettling dessert so soon after an appetizer of Julia Sugarbaker.
The trope of the homicidal same-sex duo is hardly a new one and has been deployed in everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, but Payne gives us two likeable killer queens whose road to domestic terrorism is paved with Paula Deen jokes. The zingers make for comedy gold, even if Angry Fags gets bogged down with didactic dialogue and wholly unnecessary video interstitials that only add to the three-hour runtime. Payne’s writing especially sparkles during Bennett’s flirtation with Adam, including perhaps the most titillating seduction sequence I’ve seen in years.
Such sprinkles of tenderness bring nuance to the play’s thought-provoking discourse about the role of violence in civilized society. As one character says, “It’s only called terrorism when it doesn’t work. When it does work, it’s a revolution.”