‘The Habit of Art’
Through Oct. 23 (extended)
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
With his most recent offering “The Habit of Art” (now making its U.S. premiere at The Studio Theatre), gay British playwright Alan Bennett puts the spotlight on a pair of 20th century gay cultural titans — poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten — in the last years of their long and celebrated careers. In doing so, Bennett gives an insider’s glimpse into the mad and maddening world of artistic collaboration and gay sex after 60.
The setting is one that’s familiar to Bennett — London’s National Theatre during rehearsal for a yet-untried play. Things are going badly: The director has been called to Leeds, a couple of cast members are off performing in another show and the playwright is appalled by unapproved script changes. What’s more, Fitz (Ted van Griethuysen), an aging actor cast as an aging Auden, is still struggling with his lines.
Titled “Caliban’s Day,” the play within a play takes place in 1972. It imagines a fictional, late-in-life meeting between former collaborators Auden and Britten. Troubled by his latest project — an operatic adaptation of “Death in Venice,” Thomas Mann’s novella about an older writer in love with a boy — Britten visits his old associate at Oxford where Auden is poet in residence.
What help precisely Britten is seeking from Auden is never made clear, but interesting conversation certainly ensues nonetheless. They speak of their collaboration as young expatriates in New York City, their respective partners and Britten’s interest in young choir boys. And yes, from Auden there’s a lot of talk about penises — not surprising considering his famous poem “The Platonic Blow.” But there’s also talk of artistic survival and the importance of continued, engaging work.
Thrown into the chaotic mix at Auden’s grossly untidy cottage are Humphrey Carpenter, a ubiquitous biographer on hand to interview the artists, and a local rent boy whom Auden has ordered up for a late-afternoon quickie.
Van Griethuysen is marvelous as both the tactless Auden and the testy actor Fitz who plays him. Equally superb is Paxton Whitehead as Fitz’s witty, gay co-star Henry who takes on the role of the more buttoned-down, angsty Britten.
Other standouts in the dozen person cast include two terrific gay actors: Cameron Folmar as Donald, an earnest actor willing to go to great lengths to understand his character; and Randy Harrison (best known from Showtime’s “Queer as Folk”) who plays Tim, an actor who’s happy to doff his boxer briefs to improve a scene, and Tim’s role: the no-nonsense rent boy who resents the glaring absence of sex workers from cultural history.
“The Habit of Art” is an impressively layered work, and because Bennett wrote it, it’s also smart, touching and a teensy bit smutty. A little sense of the history helps, but isn’t necessary. James Noone’s set within a set vividly brings to life the sty that was the notoriously sloppy Auden’s Oxford digs. Director David Muse’s staging is full of energy and wit.
Fortunately for us, Bennett has followed the old adage “write about what you know” (here, perhaps more than ever before).