Glitz, glamour and sequins – oh, the wonderful life of a drag queen you might think. But underneath all the make-up, wigs and fabulous dresses, there is a regular human being who has a normal life with all the ups and downs that can bring. Welcome to “International Stud”.
In 1970s New York, Arnold (CJ de Mooi) is in his dressing room getting ready for another show. As the make-up is applied and the transformation to the beautiful Virginia Ham occurs, Arnold muses on life, love and the men he is attracted to. Arnold is rather cynical, breaking men down into various groups, describing each in pretty negative but eloquent style. He also talks about his ideal man, a guy called Charlie, who had all the attributes that Arnold looks for with his romances. Move forward to a New York ‘backroom’ bar where a handsome young man called Ed (Reed Stokes) has seen Arnold and, thanks to a badly placed pool cue, strikes up a conversation with our hero. Things move on and there is a definite spark between the two of them leading to romance, love, happy-ever-afters or something different?
“International Stud” is the first play in Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ and is both a wonderful introduction to the life and loves of Arnold, and a superb one-act play in its own right. CJ brings a fantastic sense of hope and desperation to Arnold, a man searching for the elusive Mr Right who has a tendency to read way too much into every encounter. This is particularly true in the ‘backroom’ scene where we really get to see the vulnerability of the character in the most unusual setting. Reed Stokes is lovely as the young, sexually confused Ed who thinks he knows what he wants as a man but is still a scared child in many respects. Director Dan Phillips has the show revolving around Arnold/Virginia’s dressing room and this works so well – thanks in part to the big blue dolphin – as the dressing room is, in a way, Arnold’s ‘safe space’. This is where he comes to escape from his own life for a while, and enter the glamourous world of Virginia. A place where he is honest, strong and resolute when he needs to be, something I don’t feel Arnold would be in the ‘real world’.
There were lots of aspects to this show that I really enjoyed. The first was the ambiguity of the writing. Things aren’t spelled out for the audience. For example, it is never established whether Ed’s problems are the result of his own inner demons or parental influences. Likewise, Arnold’s motives are there for the audience to decipher. Is he a drag queen because of his insecurities or is he like so many performers just wanting to be admired and loved as Virginia? For that matter, is Virginia a ‘real person’ a genuine alter-ego to Arnold or just a place to escape from reality? As for the ending, well it is vague enough to satisfy everyone. The young doe-eyed optimistic believer in love will be as happy as the old world-weary cynic – although both will imagine a different future for Ed and Arnold once the curtain goes down, quality writing of the highest order. I also loved the authenticity of the performance. In acting, clothing and setting, this really felt like a dressing room in a drag bar in the 1970s. Having lived with a drag queen for three years, I was particularly impressed with CJ’s ability to apply his – very era authentic – makeup, whilst talking to the audience, something that not everyone is able to do successfully.
Finally then, I have to say that I really enjoyed “International Stud”. I was introduced to two characters that, in the space of 45 minutes, I really came to understand and care about, I know the show is off to Edinburgh soon and I hope that when it finishes there, it comes back to London so that everyone can get to join in the lives and loves of Arnold and Ed and experience a first rate performance of this seminal work.
Review by Terry Eastham
Harvey Fierstein’s International Stud
Directed by Dan Phillips
Cast: CJ de Mooi as Arnold Beckoff and Reed Stokes as Ed.
International Stud – Trailer
Arnold is a drag queen who, inspired by the tragic Torch Songs of times gone by, yearns after men he cannot or should not have, After meeting Ed at the International Stud club, Arnold feels he might have found ‘the one’ and leaps headfirst into a relationship that may not even be there.
This award winning play follows drag queen Arnold (CJ de Mooi) on his search for love in the backrooms of the 1980s gay scene, exploring sexuality and identity through humour and a brutal honesty.
Friday 31st July 2015