Michael Goldstein (left) & Mark McCullough Thomas | Photography by Richard Termine
Consent, written and directed by David Rhodes, is a powerful and provocative exploration of today’s sexual culture—a thoroughly modern love story. Opening in New York City this month for a limited run, the show centers around Ron (Mark McCullough Thomas), a middle-aged, retired NFL player who comes out late and has to navigate leaving his wife (Angela Pierce) and maintaining a relationship with his kids while finally stepping into the fraught world of gay dating. Unexpectedly, he finds himself falling for the much younger Kurt (Michael Goldstein), whose radically different approach to sex and relationships leads Ron to question himself, his desires, and, most poignantly, the gray area of consent. Buoyed by his emotional and honest-to-a-fault sister, Emily (Catherine Curtin, of Orange Is The New Black), Ron attempts to work through the pitfalls of heartbreak and the disorientation of self-discovery. Not only do Thomas and Goldstein bring an electric dynamic to their roles, they’re also quite naked throughout.
Out spoke with David Rhodes about the wide array of issues covered in Consent, from inter-generational relationships to role-playing, gay sexual dynamics and, of course, consent.
Out: Where did this story come from?
David Rhodes: Like my protagonist, I came out late in life. Unlike Ron, I came out with my wife's support. I had no gay experiences—because I didn't think that would ever be allowed—I have a child, and my wife and I began to discuss the issue. With her support, and against my will, she encouraged me to start experimenting. So there were about two years where I was experimenting with men but still insisting that it was experimentation. Afterwards, I’d always come home and be fiercely heterosexual with my wife. And then during that period, I, like Ron, had my first big romance. And that was of course a game changer, both good and bad. And just to clarify, my wife and I are still married. If either of us find somebody that we would like to be with in that way, then we'd be more than happy to divorce and support each other. But for now, we're doing good where we are.
But specifically, as far as this play goes, when I started experimenting with men I was shocked and delighted at how many creative ways men are willing to engage sexually, ways that were drastically different from anything I had experienced in my heterosexual life. I always had girlfriends, but boys are different.
So there’s a lot of you in this show?
Well, I started taking notes on some of these experiences I was having. I was really fascinated by the idea of who takes on the passive, who takes on the submissive role, when there are two men who are gender equal. Just like Ron says in the play, With girls, it's a no brainer. With boys, someone has to do that. There are societal implications of men taking on that role, and the ways it impacts us—that really was the genesis of the play.
So I was taking notes in that direction, and then I showed the play to a friend of mine who's a director, and he said, “David, you have no idea what you've got here. This is a really important story that has never been told before, and the world is ready for it. You should be doing what you can to get this produced.” The goal is for this production to continue to move forward and bring in more support so we can go to an even bigger and more mainstream theater. My goal is for this to be on Broadway. I think Broadway is ready, and if not, I think they need to be ready. So I made a big effort to stage the play as tastefully as I can—it is sexy without being exploitative—and to tell an honest story without making any judgements about who's right and who's wrong. It's a multi-perspective play. The sister has one point of view, the wife has another point of view, Kurt sees it this way, Ron sees it another way. I leave it to the audience to decide what happened to that man, whether he consented or not.
What is it that you think will draw people to the play?
It’s very timely. My protagonist is a public figure, an NFL athlete, who makes a huge life change and has to deal with societal pressure while making peace with his family. Caitlyn Jenner is doing the same thing. This is happening right in front of our faces, on many levels. Many athletes are coming out, many public figures are having to negotiate, because of the internet, information about that that they would prefer not to have known. As a society, we need to support each other. The way I live my life is ok and beautiful, and the way Cailtyn is living hers, or the way Ron Sullivan is living his—we all deserve to find our happiness and our authentic selves. And I hope that idea it overrides any salacious or exploitative aspects—though I have no problem with having written, and my cast performing, a very sexy play. Which it is.
I think there's a huge mainstream appeal, because it's not just a gay thing—it's happening on college campuses, and in the straight community. I will say, if I had written this play in any other context, I would be crucified. In other words, the fact that it's gender equal, and that the younger man is the aggressor, gives me a certain political neutrality that I wouldn’t have if it were a man and a woman, or an older man hitting a younger man. And whether it's hitting or playing, I leave it to the audience to decide. I think it's somewhere in between ... what I call “the event” of the play is intentionally gray.
Catherine Curtin (left) and Angela Pierce
Through your characters, you explore a huge range of issues—inter-generational, a man coming out later in life with a wife and kids, there the dangers of dating in the internet world, sibling relationships, the idea of having open relationship. Why were all of these dimensions important for you to include?
It's the story of my life. This is how I live my life. I believe in a multi-perspective approach to the world. As many people as there are on this planet, that's how many eyes there are interpreting the world in their own way. We all have a right to have our own opinions, and for them to be validated. This play shows that the same exact event can be viewed from four different people, with everyone coming to very different conclusions.
There’s this great scene where Ron and Kurt talk about their attitudes towards relationships, and the generational differences are really put on display...
Yes, I love that 3 a.m. scene, where they talk about their sexual history. And for the boy [Kurt], it's such a different thing. That's something that I am around a lot, and it’s very much true to my life. I didn't have the opportunity to be out when I was 20 and also, without getting too heavy, I was 21 in 1981. So even if I had wanted to come out, the fear associated with that period of history was enough to keep me in the closet. Plus I was an actor with a high profile career, so like Ron I couldnt... I was afraid. But when I did come out, and met all these lovely young men who are completely unconflicted, and quite voracious and inappropriate like Kurt. Part of me is terrified of them, and part of me is really jealous and covetous that I didn't get to have that opportunity when I was in my 20s.
You know, those boys like Kurt are out there, and they have no boundaries, and they have learned about life and sex on the internet in a way that people in my generation... I mean, when I grew up, Lucy and Ricky had to keep one foot on the floor and have separate beds. And when Ron says, The world has changed teenage gay kids are kissing on TV, this is my reality. So my journey is not that different from his, and I did have my big heartbreak. But this is just anybody having their second adolescence. I think Emily says it very well, Having feelings for the wrong guy, that's just being human.
And I think there's also some question as to whether or not Kurt really was the wrong guy.... I think sex, gay or straight sex, but particularly gay sex, has such a shroud of shame around it in our culture, which is basically a shame based Judeo-Christian culture that says sex is naughty and dirty, and gay sex is really naughty and really dirty. So exploring your own shame and being pushed through it, is a kind of breakthrough and an awakening. And I don't make any bones in the character of Ron about acknowledging his internalized homophobia, and how he projects that onto Kurt.
The fetishes and the rough sex that Ron and Kurt engage in is put on display in front of the audience, in a very intimate theater. What are you hoping the audience will take away from that?
I don't feel the need to protect the audience from the realities of gay sex. I didn't want to put on a sex show, though I know that there will be people that are drawn to the play because they will want to see two exquisitely beautiful men interact in that way. And they're magnificent actors, and the fact that they're magnificent actors and also beautiful makes it that much more palatable. I wanted it to be beautiful and not exploitative, and honest. I think that what they do is extremely true to life. And again, it's fly-on-the-wall theater, so I want the audience to be a little bit uncomfortable, and a little bit aroused. I want them to be challenged, intellectually, visually, and ethically, because there is an ethical question here.
And then, the dad-son dynamic is a very real issue in the gay community. I don't want to call it violence but, aggressive sex is a big part of the way we interact. And we're men, so we can take it. You don't have to be so careful. I think—I know, that sex with women is a very different thing. With men, it's alpha on alpha. And that can create a lot of excitement, and a lot of unhappiness.
You touched upon the fact that Ron goes through this intense guilt when he discovers what he likes sexually. Do you want to talk a bit about what role you think shame should play in our sex lives?
It's really tricky. That's a really great question, and I really don't know the answer. There's something very sexy about doing things that are naughty, that you're not allowed to do. And I think that’s not just a gay thing, I think that's a human thing. I don't know if it's that our culture has cast sex that way, or being naughty is just sexy, but I think that acknowledging that issue and exploring it is an essential part of being a realized sexual being. It's like, if I do this really naughty thing, then do I realize that it is not so naughty anymore, that it's ok to be naughty, that what I thought was naughty is maybe not that naughty? Or, are you just a masochist, and reacting to an unresolved relationship with your dad, or whatever it is?
As far as consent goes, I would argue that in the course of a half hour encounter with somebody, there are at least a dozen times—especially if you don't know them that well—where you have to make a decision whether or not you are going to allow something to happen or not. We want to think that consent is a light switch that you turn on or turn off, but it's not, it's a moving target. I mean, you're with somebody and, I don't like the way they're kissing me. Should I let him put a finger in me? I don't really like tha--oh I do like that. All these things are decisions that have to be made in the context of that encounter, that negotiation. And the problem is, you can give or take away consent before doing something, you can give or take it away during, but when you've done something and then you try to renege consent afterwards, that’s when you get into the situation that Ron is in. And many of us find ourselves in such a situation and, frankly, it’s unresolveable. Sex itself is an altered state, so you're already in a state of arousal and primalness, and then you add whatever other substance, and you may actually consent to things that you then maybe wish you hadn't. That's tricky.
Consent runs through June 28 at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Theatre, NYC