Perfect Stranger

Jess Barbagallo on the Pomodori Foundation’s Queer and Alone (1993)

Postcard for The Pomodori Foundation, Queer & Alone at the Kitchen, 1993. The Kitchen Archive, c. 1971–99. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

IN A PARTICULARLY telling moment of the Pomodori Foundation’s 1993 production Queer and Alone, based on the eponymous 1987 novel-cum-travelogue by Jim Strahs, the ne’er-do-well narrator Desmond Farrquahr (Greg Mehrten) finds himself in an intimate conversation with one of his primary nemeses, Miss Deborah Springman (Ann Rower). It’s 1979 and Desmond is mysteriously en route to Hong Kong, along with a passel of morally questionable “travel rats,” whose exploits he recounts with varying tones of amusement, scorn, and outrage over the course of the show’s sixty minutes. Having arrived somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean after surviving a terrific storm, the sulking Desmond is piqued to learn that the two objects of his ambivalent affections aboard the rollicking ship—the aforementioned Deb, and a dreamy Aussie named Rory McAllister, whose limited personality extends only so far as his “perfect twenty-eight-inch waist”—have taken advantage of the collective near-death experience to become “regular sex partners.” Their coupling is acutely bothersome to the polymorphously perverse Desmond; excluded from the fun, he is left pondering the hypocrisy of prude-turned-overnight sexpot Deb and the betrayal of Rory’s willingness to congress with such a specimen. When the lady in question offers him a conversational olive branch mid-show, Desmond makes quick work of cutting through the bullshit:

Deborah was again interested in what she called my “beliefs.” You know what I mean. In theatre they’re called “props” and lie about the stage to be fiddled with in absent moments when the actor forgets his lines or when the actress feels she is no longer sufficiently attractive after time and lights have melted her grease paint.

The equation of “belief” and “prop” succinctly encapsulates Desmond’s worldview while handily working as a cheeky metatheatrical device for audience members who delight in that sort of thing (me). It no doubt also suggests the profound loneliness that Desmond refuses to name at every misanthropic, self-isolating turn. Indeed, if he were real, he would most likely scoff at such an empathetic pronouncement. If there is one thing a dandy is averse to, it is platitudes, and I suspect that the short-lived theater collective that spawned the Pomodori Foundation—Mehrten; his lover, the late Ron Vawter; and director-dramaturg Marianne Weems—would take Desmond’s side in that fight.

Greg Mehrten in The Pomodori Foundation, Queer & Alone, 1993. Performance view at the Kitchen, New York. Image: Paula Court.

Queer and Alone has recently been made available for public viewing as part of the Kitchen’s OnScreen Video Viewing Room, and the work is a revelation to this student of late-twentieth century downtown theater. I had already tasted Strahs’s deliciously dirty verbiage in a 2010 remount of the Wooster Group’s 1984 North Atlantic—a vaudevillian work that chronicled military life aboard an aircraft carrier—at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. I remember leaving the theater that night wondering why more contemporary plays didn’t feel like Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero laced with amphetamines. Vawter played in that original production; in a clip available on the Wooster Group’s website, his charisma is palpable. Mehrten can also be included as a member of the Wooster’s illustrious stable, most recently doing an arch turn as Diana Trilling in their 2017 production of The Town Hall Affair; he has also performed with Mabou Mines and Richard Maxwell, although my fondest memories of Greg are working with him on the live lesbian serial Room for Cream, in which he played a winningly blasé gay amidst a coterie of strident dykes cohabitating somewhere in the Berkshires. Queer and Alone also serves as a prototype, thematically and formally, for the kinds of cross-media performance Weems would go on to devise with her company the Builders Association (an ensemble I have had the pleasure of performing with several times), formed shortly after Vawter’s passing. Throughout her career, she has meditated on the body in transit, the funhouse operations of technology, and its impact on notions of human connection. It is a treat to see Weems working in a poor theater idiom, as her more mature spectacles have been marked by the employment of big screens, animation, and live-video feeds that have continued to critique the meretricious appeal of antiquated realism.

Last month, the footage of Queer and Alone was accompanied online by Ken Kobland’s End Credits (1994), a video that lovingly documents Vawter’s backstage preparations for a benefit performance of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith that ran in tandem with Queer and Alone during the Pomodori Foundation’s 1993 residency at the Kitchen. When I watched it, I couldn’t help but think it must be especially mesmerizing for those viewers who have taken that harrowing walk onstage to greet an expectant crowd. In the video, Vawter smokes, does a line-thru, questions his ability to stay in the moment, and runs a comb through his thinning hair. Mehrten makes a brief appearance, handsome and smiling in a leather jacket. In an interview with Weems—conducted in May 2020 by Kitchen curatorial fellow Elizabeth Wiet and still viewable on the institution’s website—he describes how difficult this seemingly carefree moment really was. Vawter was becoming progressively sicker with AIDS and Mehrten served as his primary caregiver at the time, while also directing Roy Cohn/Jack Smith and starring in Queer and Alone. Weems recounts applying ointment to the Kaposi sarcoma lesions on Vawter’s back.

Despite this devastating reality, Mehrten, outfitted with a cheap wig that keeps sliding off his head, gives an astonishingly buoyant performance as Farrquahr. It’s hard to know if he’s a reject from a French farce or auditioning for a Douglas Sirk melodrama about a discontented housewife; the mustache he pencils on early in the show does little to clarify the gender confusion. A master of the double entendre, Mehrten turns even the most innocuous sentences into come-ons. Laying in a simple twin bed—fabric draped overhead to suggest the confines of a nautical cabin—and wearing a thick medical bandage over his eyes, he begins the show: “So I got on a big boat in Bremerhaven. I trust I’m not proceeding too wildly for you to keep up.” Mehrten keeps Strahs’s patter moving at such a clip that we only grasp Desmond’s steely integrity—and the drifting quality of his pathos—inside of brief pauses that feel like precious secrets. Above all, Desmond is a sensualist and a fantasist; what he seems to despise more than anything are the demands of contrived civility, that most dangerous mask worn in the name of gentility.

Ron Vawter in The Pomodori Foundation, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, 1993. Performance view at the Kitchen, New York. Image: Paula Court.

But Queer and Alone is more complex than your traditional character study. Mehrten occupies the space with untrained performers Rower (a gifted author in her own right) and the late Elion “Lushe” Sacker, both of whom hold scripts while they deliver their lines. As Deb, Rower plays the good-natured foil to the acerbic lead; immune to misogyny, she matches his self-satisfied posturing with the confidence of a worldly cougar (a role she intermittently reprises throughout the proceedings when she doubles as Nanette, the libertine wife of casually racist blowhard entrepreneur Ernest Cayman, portrayed by Lushe, who holds court often in the lounge of the ship.)

Before Mehrten delivers his deadpan introduction, the audience is treated to a sickbed monologue performed by Lola Pashalinski (also playing Desmond) in a video on a television monitor just upstage. The doubling of the lead character is disorienting, yet it lends a strangely choppy warmth to the scene, even verging on gravitas, as Pashalinski measuredly reflects on the condition of a natural-born traveler whom infirmity prevents from traveling. We are then treated to an audio recording of a high-pitched voice proclaiming that they, too, are Desmond and that money is not a concern since Desmond lives off a trust. This voice (in fact belonging to Jack Dafoe, the son of Elizabeth LeCompte and Willem Dafoe) reappears periodically throughout the show, curious in its chipper, robotic femininity: Is Desmond actually a schoolgirl in gentleman’s pajamas? While these fracturing devices have the inevitable effect of distancing us briefly from the action, they also make the ostensibly queer male space of Desmond’s world a more inclusive terrain where norms of sexuality, morality, and kinship are abandoned in the pursuit of a willful estrangement. To be ever just-outside one’s own life might seem like a curious endgame, but the chronicles produced by Desmond’s alienation are a bittersweet reward.